New York

Vicki Teague-Cooper

Little John/Sternau Gallery

Vicki Teague-Cooper’s early epic paintings pit anonymous people against the overwhelming forces of nature. These existential scenes are replete with elemental images that bypass specificities of culture and gender in favor of a kind of symbolic cosmology. This continues to be true of her more recent, smaller paintings, though the figures have vanished, leaving only symbolic-looking objects set in shimmering fields of rich color. The construction of these works is unique: small, square canvases placed on chairs and on shelves that have been covered with a patina of bronze powder. By using a combination of oil and encaustic for the paintings, Teague-Cooper has transformed simple images—a bowl, an egg, a ladder—into gleaming icons. Aptly termed “altars” by the artist, these works look decidedly, if very generally, religious.

The nine works featured here are the latest and most impressive of the “Anima Mundi” series, 1988-1992, a title that reflects the artist’s Jungian-oriented exploration of alchemy and of archetypes in painting. Indeed, her choices of media and form render the most common images profound, especially in works that spotlight a single image. In Anima Mundi: Offering, 1991-92, for example, a shelf supports a painting of a simple ceramic bowl hovering against a luminous, indeterminate background. In Anima Mundi: Oracle, 1992, a chair holds a painting of a bonfire that burns against a swirling orange field. These images are realistically rendered but ungrounded; they float like vivid hallucinations, some as disturbing as the human spine in Anima Mundi: Primordium, 1992, or the bodiless hand in Anima Mundi: Guide, 1991-92.

In a statement accompanying the show, Teague-Cooper writes about her well-researched appropriation of symbols from a wide variety of cultures and religions, explaining that her intention is to create “a lexicon of archetypes, a symbolic language in a constant state of metamorphosis.” She best approximates such a linguistic dynamic in three works that bring several images together in provocative groupings, each one a triptych of canvases resting on a long shelf. Anima Mundi: Magic, 1991-92, juxtaposes paintings of a noose, an egg, and a hand, while Anima Mundi: Initiation, 1991-92, unites images of a ladder, a cone, and a lighted candle. Each ensemble, in cryptically echoing its title, remains elusive. These quasi-devotional structures are orchestrated to inspire contemplation, and ultimately to mystify the viewer.

The enigma of these works is undermined by the artist’s decision to spell out her grand, theoretical plan in both the series title and in her statement. By harnessing her artwork to a manifesto, she runs the risk of relegating it to the role of illustration. It was for precisely this reason that Freud rejected the Surrealists’ conscious search for the unconscious as a contradiction in terms; the premeditated cultivation of archetypes from the “collective unconscious” would logically render them contrived—dead on arrival. Yet when no longer measured by the yardstick of Jungian psychoanalysis—long a tired cliché in the arena of painting—Teague-Cooper’s works succeed. Her use of overdetermined symbols, rich materials, and dramatic framing devices activate a religious aura in the gallery, subtly drawing attention to the image-fetish that has come to replace religion in the modern era.

Jenifer P. Borum