New York

Don Cooper

Phyllis Weil

Don Cooper has found a way to extend the pastoral mode into the late 20th century by making it responsive to our awareness of the psychological terrors present in our everyday lives. In the seven paintings and four pastels shown here, as in his earlier work, the artist addresses the alienation of man from nature, the intertwining of memory and imagination, and the interpenetration of the earthly and spiritual realms. While all of these themes are familiar ones, Cooper’s particular angle of vision is unlike anyone else’s. Rather than encapsulating our current chaos by employing expressionist brushwork (a sign of angst) or developing a system of signs derived from mass media and abstraction (the academic intellectualization of despair), he has evolved an approach in a very different and, to my mind, potent direction.

Cooper’s crisp depiction of images owes something to the earnest, accurate generalizing that one finds in American “outsider” art. However, the relative calmness of the paint handling and the efficiency with which a wide assortment of details are transformed into recognizable, seemingly realist images is undercut by the lurid palette and the spatiotemporal ambiguity of the composition. At their best, his paintings are dreamlike, but sometimes he tends toward a nightmarish vision that verges on kitsch.

In Looks like we’re in for some bad weather, looks like we’re in for a storm, 1986, there are three fair-skinned figures in the foreground (a conservatively dressed woman flanked by a similarly dressed younger woman and a young man in military uniform) and behind them, stretching back into deep space, a path lined with tall, flower-bordered evergreens. The palette in this lower half of the painting is dominated by dark greens and blues. The older woman’s striking resemblance to Queen Elizabeth II could easily lead one to an interpretation of the three figures as members of the royal family. The face of the central figure is shown staring in our direction, unseeing and without any emotion, while her young companions seem to be looking up at the sky (which occupies most of the upper half of the painting). Consisting of smeared red and gray bands, the cloud-streaked sky is animated by the ghostly faces and upper torsos of blacks and Asians. This third-world “heavenly choir” is not a multitude of departed souls but a vision of the meek who shall inherit the earth—a vision that is only barely glimpsed and hardly comprehended by the white protagonists below. In this and other works, Cooper raises questions about what it is like to be alive in a multiracial world in the years after Vietnam and before the fall of the Union of South Africa.

Cooper, who lives in Georgia, began this group of works in Scotland in 1985, while he was on a Fulbright Fellowship there. Clearly, he was ready to be receptive to a new environment, and his work suggests that he had little difficulty in transforming aspects of the Scottish countryside into emblematic images. But Cooper’s manipulation of space and images isn’t directive or heavy-handed. The work does not reveal his intentions immediately, for he creates a narrative possibility that the viewer must complete. In doing this, he not only engages the world, his memories, and his feelings, but he composes quietly reflective dramas in which the actual and the imagined coexist.

John Yau