Chicago

Justin Cooper

moniquemeloche

A wheelbarrow balancing on a seashell, giant plastic leis whirling in loops of color, folding chairs and garden hoses flying through the air—it’s a party all right, but frozen in place.

Such is the paradoxically festive yet static atmosphere of Justin Cooper’s second solo exhibition at moniquemeloche. Cooper—known for edgy, slapstick, and invariably manic performances that put objects acquired at Home Depot, the Party Store, and Offi ceMax to inspired misuse—here distills the animating, tension-building force of his live art into the still form of stand-alone sculpture.

No small task, that, coaxing life out of standard-issue garden implements, cheap party favors, and ugly office furnishings. But what a life! When inanimate objects come alive they apparently go to town, dancing the rumba, belting out songs, getting wasted and falling down plastered on the floor. In that hefty wheelbarrow we find a drunken daredevil, boldly poised on its handle atop a curvaceous little seashell in a pas de deux titled First Wet Dream, 2009. In Leid, 2009, shimmying, brightly colored leis sinuously twist around one another as if in bed or on a steamy dance floor. This, no doubt, leads to Climax, 2009, where, it seems, the clock has just struck twelve on New Year’s Eve, as four plain metal folding chairs, suspended by four rigid garden hoses, fly in a glorious jumble ten feet up in the air. Exhausted, 2009, finds a once-elegant paper palm tree gone all flat and droopy, curling its lame self up against the wall, pathetically soliciting our sympathy or even empathy.

Apart from the palm tree, whose earthbound flaccidity seems the exception that proves the rule, the sculptures possess a breathtaking tautness and tension. These states are not themselves remarkable, but the way that Cooper extends them indefinitely, as if by a kind of divine artistic grace, and channels them into stable, three-dimensional forms, is. Everything threatens to come crashing down but doesn’t, and with each moment that passes without a chair or a wheelbarrow clattering to the floor, a quivering glee swells, a glee that knows how gravity works and delights in seeing it daringly flouted, that knows objects can’t dance or fly or have sex but relishes their mysterious ability to do so here.

Everything does come tumbling down, however, in the five-minute video Studio Visit, 2007, which played in the project space at the rear of the gallery. Cooper doesn’t play cool-in-the-studio like Bruce Nauman; rather, from behind the camera he hyperventilates, squeals like a tortured rodent, hurls things, and jerks around in an impish fit. These gestures and vocalizations are both comic and disturbing, and expend the perverse energy that is held so incredibly still in the artist’s sculptures. But the thirty-seven adjacent drawings from his “Studio Visit Series,” 2007–, prove that here the sculptures’ fraught stillness is paramount. Composed of colorful, fragmentary little doodles corralled into simple, well-behaved and orderly silhouettes, the drawings put the pieces back together again: Witnessing their reconstruction, it turns out, isn’t nearly as compelling as waiting for them to fall.

Lori Waxman