Los Angeles

Jacqueline Cooper


The buxom women in Jacqueline Cooper’s recent paintings inhabit a world culled from some unknown opera set in a Nordic region that seems both storybook distant and close enough to be just behind the nearest S&M club. The only contrast to the coolness of this subfreezing zone is the warm, pinkish flesh of Cooper’s heroines, of which they show a lot. Heedless of the risk of frostbite, the figures go about unclothed except for bits of lace and rope and leather hoods to keep their ears warm. Oh, but those nose rings must get cold.

Of course, nobody’s really catching a chill, because we know these paintings aren’t about reality—not just because the characters haven’t frozen solid, but because the scenes suggest the conventions of theater (and cinema, for that matter). The figures are choreographed and costumed; the objects look like props (an armchair in the middle of a snowy field?); the point of view often seems like a camera angle; and in most of the paintings, middle space is all but absent between a heightened foreground and a more generalized, flat background. One gets the sense that if the curvaceous damsel in Flurry, 2000, were to shift a little more to the right, one might catch a glimpse of the guy on the ladder sifting fake snow over her head.

These women aren’t just dressing the stage. While the paintings offer no full narratives, there’s little question that drama is unfolding. In Snow Angels, 1999, two bound, hooded; stocking-clad women pause on a wintry journey to stain the snow with streams of red-tinged urine. In Flurry, a Venus steps to the very front of the illusionistic space. Suggesting Manet’s Olympia and Rubens’s portrait of his wife, she partly covers her crotch with one hand while her arm wraps around her breasts, emphasizing more than hiding them as she stares out in a coy but cautious way from behind her leather mask In Snow Ball, 2000, a figure wearing only gloves, stockings, and high heels sprawls on all fours in the snow while looking up at the viewer from behind a hood crowned with a tiara. Play Pen, 2000, depicts a woman who is all forward, pointing toward the viewer with her whole body as she sits back in a throne, her mask accessorized by the animal skin wrapped around her neck like a crude stole, while another hooded woman sits clutching one breast at the foot of the chair.

Of course, to ascribe inconsistencies and distortions in the paintings themselves to a mimicry of the oddities of theater is to give Cooper the benefit of the doubt. But although I’d like her to clarify the occasional vagueness one way or the other, I’ll accept the task of understanding these images as fragments of theater, which implies narrative and envelops possibilities of drama, tragedy, comedy, history, fantasy, erotica, and exploitation. These paintings can push their viewers into zones of political uneasiness, moral discomfort, or maybe guilty pleasure, any one of which gets risky for both artist and audience, but the limbo between these zones is where I find my interest. Cooper tells us that she is telling a story, but doesn’t quite tell it, and so, despite the loaded imagery, one is left perpetually questioning and assuming (and questioning one’s assuming) about what is going on in these paintings and how one should think or feel about it. The whole range of reaction is there for the choosing. Just don’t eat the orange snow.

—Chistopher Miles