San Marcos

Janet Cooling

Boehm Gallery, Palomar College

“Brave New World” was the title of this exhibition of portraits of women by Janet Cooling. The show concentrated on her recent paintings and drawings, primarily from the past two years, but also included a small selection of paintings from the early '80s. The later works are so superior, both in technical sophistication and approach to subject matter, that it was almost painful to see the early work. Cooling's paintings have evolved from very flat, gaudy images painted on black backgrounds, resembling psychedelic posters from the '60s, into richly textured, painterly portraits that evoke real emotional depth. Judging by the unevenness of this show, however, the transition has been rocky. Cooling appears to have been trying out different styles of painting, as well as a variety of attitudes toward her female subjects and spiritual stances. The range is hard to get a grip on; one could easily have thought it was a group show.

Four paintings in acrylic from 1986 were all made up of painted images juxtaposed and overlaid almost like collage. Silver Spoon, 1986, shows the faces of two women, one white, one black, collaged with images of a train, a race horse, and a large silver spoon. The spoon may be a reference to drugs, and the train and horse may be sexual symbols, but the connections seem more haphazard than allusive. In addition, the two women seem to exhibit some kind of tension, but it is not clear if it comes from a common cause, such as feminist sisterhood, or if it is sexual tension. Silver Spoon's aggressive imagery is unsettling and somewhat confused.

The paintings from 1987 show the artist moving in two very different directions. A group of four oil paintings resumed the flatness and harsh colors of the earliest works in the exhibition. These garish images are of naked women, seen from the hack, standing silhouetted against dramatic landscapes. One untitled work shows a woman with her arms raised over her head and staring at a curtain of lightning in a brilliant red sky as a hawk is about to land on her. The picture's significance is completely ambiguous, but its underlying sexual implications are powerful. Equally ambiguous is another untitled painting that shows a woman from the back facing a colorful sky as butterflies surround her and a bird approaches. (There is a similar drawing in the show, with a panther instead of a bird.) The problem with these pictures is that they are more illustrations than paintings. The paint is flat and the edges of the figures appear very hard, even in the more subtle areas, such as transitions from shadow to light across the woman's back.

But the show also included some wonderful works, especially two untitled paintings, both 1987, that each show the face of a woman juxtaposed with a bird. In sharp contrast to the illustrational works, the surfaces here are thickly covered with oil paint, the rich oily texture matching the sensual reveries of the women's faces. One of the two paintings is a particular feat of understated elegance, with the head of a woman seemingly lost in thought, her eyes closed, painted against a peach-pink background, and Cooling's insignialike red-tailed hawk flying just overhead. Her face is a rainbow of color, consisting of blues, greens, and patches of pink bursting from the flesh tones in a neo-Fauve manner, but modeled with a naturalistic sense of volume and texture. Here, Cooling's approach strikes a balance between naturalism and fantasy that transcends both, and seems to resolve all that she was attempting in the other works.

The difference between the more “painterly” works and the other images is the focus on the paint itself. Her greater success with these works is perhaps partly due to the use of oil paint, a more sensual medium that seems to match Cooling's desire for sensuality. Whatever the reason, one can only hope that she will continue in this vein.

Susan Freudenheim