Los Angeles

Ron Cooper

Ovsey Gallery

Ron Cooper is well-known for his fascination with light and altered perception and their relationship to classical renditions of the human figure. His early Plexiglas/resin “light traps” of the late ’60s aligned him with such light-and-space artists as Larry Bell and Robert Irwin. But since 1974 Cooper has focused on the manipulated photographic image and on ceramics, metamorphosing human detail and traditional modes of representation into process-related investigations of time, movement, light, space, and perception.

Cooper’s first photographic experiments consisted of computer-enhanced images of torsos, which reduced the body to a formal grid—a homage to Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of frozen motion, as well as a paean to the structure of Modernism. More recently, Cooper has destabilized the image even further in what he calls “Flashlight Torsos,” 1985. These are time-delayed Polaroids, shot in the dark, which record the tracings of a fine-beam flashlight over nude models. The body is simultaneously disintegrated into manipulated artificial light and then reconstructed as a simulation of the original model.

The photos could thus be seen as a record of a performance piece, a deliberate reduction of material form to a kinetic simulacrum, spectral in its transparency and insubstantiality, and offering an invitation to fantasy and dream. The work is also a metaphor for “search,” a disclosure of form/light out of the darkness. The resulting X-ray-like skeletal outlines not only underline the constructive properties of light moving in time, but also illustrate the technological transformation of classical representation into an obviously false metaphor, a critique perhaps of Plato’s “Myth of the Cave,” with its distinctions between true and false copies.

The ceramic torsos extend these investigations into a more concrete materiality, using color and glazing rather than light. Male and female trunks express a clear, three-dimensional “realism,” but they are broken down by surface “designs” in the form of abstract expressionist drips and Mondrian-like zigzags or grids. Form is restored its substance as a “true copy,” yet undercut through Cooper’s overt references to art-historical rhetoric. Classical and Modernist allusions are accentuated to stress all the better their ideological implications as signifying strategies. The torsos, for example, are stripped of their human personalities and reduced to objects/sculptures, fragments representing their own subtext. By virtue of being incomplete bodies, the torsos allude not only to a fragmented signification, but also validate that incompleteness, as if Classical relics, like the Venus de Milo, must be broken to justify their historical authenticity.

While the flashlight photographs and ceramic torsos deny personality to examine esthetic and historical processes, Cooper’s latest “Portrait Vases,” 1985, restore it—as a ghost image. Each plaster or bronze vase sits on a steel tripod, the combined height equaling the real height of the subject. The walls of the vessel are shaped to form human profiles. The surrounding negative space juts into the object from all sides, creating an illusory doppelgänger effect, each “face” staring at its double across the material “barrier” of the vase itself. The pieces are usually finished in monochromatic glazes, bronze, or sprayed molten copper, as if the aura of personality (difference) must be offset by a uniformity (repetition) of color.

Technology in Cooper’s oeuvre is thus combined with the classical qualities of both shape and form to simultaneously critique the language of representation, yet also absorb it into an art-historical continuum. Cooper’s main shortcoming here is that his new work is becoming increasingly slick in its execution, stressing artifice rather than questioning ideology. Cooper often teeters on the brink of whimsy, a sign that he is perhaps reluctant to develop the conceptual elements of his work at the expense of commercial accessibility.

Colin Gardner