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A space of invention: ASU photography professor awarded Guggenheim Fellowship

Artist and Arizona State University Associate Professor Liz Cohen has been named a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in photography by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Liz Cohen, associate professor in the School of Art, has been named a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. Photo by Aaron Rothman.

She joins fellow photographers and ASU School of Art faculty members Mark Klett and Betsy Schneider in receiving this prestigious honor.

“Liz is fantastic,” said Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, of which the School of Art is a part. “Her hire (in fall 2017) is one of the reasons the photography program moved up in the U.S. News and World Report rankings to No. 6 nationally. 

A first-generation Latinx artist, Cohen is known for work that examines immigration, nonconformity and resistance. She is perhaps best known for the project BODYWORK, for which she transformed an aging East German Trabant into an American El Camino lowrider, and herself into a car customizer and a bikini model. Another project, CANAL, documents sex workers on the fringe of the Panama Canal Zone through performances and black and white photographs.

In December 2020, the ASU Art Museum will mount a mid-career retrospective of Cohen’s work, much of which is inspired by what curator Julio Cesar Morales calls “the artist’s cultural inbetweenness and multivalent experience” as the child of a Colombian mother and Syrian-Jewish father who immigrated to Arizona together in the 1970s.

“Liz Cohen has consistently pushed the boundaries of photography,” Morales said, “and challenges traditional notions of identity by generating dialogue across issues relating to gender roles, immigration, labor and resistance. She is a very gifted artist and dedicated educator. I am honored to be curating BODY/MAGIC, an exhibition of her work at the museum that will be thought provoking, beautiful and powerful.”

Speaking of her approach to art, Cohen said, “When you’re negotiating your difference, you’re in a space of invention, and it’s a place where new things can happen. You have to solve things in new ways. As a society, when we don’t accept the things people have to offer, we lose out. The resistance to that kind of violence of being left out is that people generate ideas and communities, and people invent.”

Cohen earned her MFA in photography from the California College of the Arts. She has a BFA in studio art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and a BA in philosophy from Tufts University. She has received awards from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, Akademie Schloss Solitude, the Creative Capital Foundation and the Kresge Foundation, and has exhibited work at Site Santa Fe, Ballroom Marfa, the Cranbrook Art Museum and Museum Tinguely.

“I’m very proud of being a part of ASU,” Cohen said. “I’ve had the opportunity to start the Representation Lab and start this series of courses, generally supported by the institution first by Projecting All Voices and then by the Global Sports Institute. I feel proud to be at this big public university where the leadership values including people rather than excluding people and giving a quality education to the most people possible.”

deborah.sussman@asu.edu