San Francisco

Alika Cooper, Cherried, 2011, collaged fabric, stretcher bars, 16 x 20".

Alika Cooper, Cherried, 2011, collaged fabric, stretcher bars, 16 x 20".

Alika Cooper

Eleanor Harwood Gallery

Alika Cooper, Cherried, 2011, collaged fabric, stretcher bars, 16 x 20".

In LA’s textile district, acres of warehouse space are packed with bolts of fabric shoulder to shoulder in rotund cylinders and flatboarded stacks. Three, four, five deep, they quietly rub against one another—satin sliding against royal velvet brushing cottons rough and fine; patterns of interlocking diamonds and pulsating paisleys clashing with fields of tiny flowers splayed across expanses of beige, for a grand optical performance. Taken at once, this heterogeneous mélange hints at the infinitude of combinatorial possibility. In this spirit, Los Angeles–based artist Alika Cooper rearticulates the photographic form via a kind of “painting” as craft, layering textiles into compositions of landscapes and bodies. Though the handling of fabric usually belongs to the soft domain of women’s work, Cooper’s images are sourced from compositionally assertive photos shot by men.

In “Cherried,” Cooper’s exhibition at the newly opened Eleanor Harwood Gallery in San Francisco, different, patterned fabrics are pulled across stretcher bars and collaged to form pictures brought together in a profusion of peculiar combinations. Each of the artist’s eleven cloth-based “paintings” on view depicts different bodies, all tensely sexualized, in compositions drawn from the work of three classic photographers of the female form: Heinz Hajek-Halke, Helmut Newton, and Brassaï. To make each work, Cooper first tacks a base fabric across stretcher bars and then shapes her compositions by adhering bits of carefully cut cloth to the surface with glue. The resulting soft polychromatics distance the stark black-and-whites of the photos she is referencing. But the material also works in other ways to contrast with the subjects it depicts. The product of a long line of lady crafters, the artist appears to have sheared her material from the prairie dresses of Protestant farmers’ daughters. Distinctly feminine, if resolutely chaste, the fabrics broadcast a sense of rural American restraint and oppression. Yet twisted and arced, Cooper’s patchworked surfaces of sweet, homespun fabrics (including many pulled from the decades-old rag room of her Oklahoman aunt) give way to the drama of studio-styled models and haute couture.

But though Newton, Brassaï, and Hajek-Halke are all museum-worthy photographers, at least the first two are popular almost to the point of kitsch (what museum gift shop doesn’t sell a postcard of its token Brassaï?). Cooper’s pictures can perhaps also be understood as a kind of reclaimed Pop. Painters such as Tom Wesselmann and John Wesley come to mind as potential influences, their seductive canvases prefiguring Cooper’s particular transcription of the female form. However, through this translation, the narrative often only becomes darker. In one particularly charged piece, Ditch (all works 2011), a photograph by Brassaï is channeled through a complex layering of mostly neutered beige and brown patterns. While the original image depicts a couple intimately entwined, in Cooper’s version the woman appears under assault, pinned by the man in a crevasse of the abstracted fabric landscape, suggesting not consensual engagement, but rape. This air of violence is present in all of Cooper’s constructions; her patchworking of the subject—a breakdown and reassambly of the human form—reveals an ambiguity toward the eroticism of the body. Elsewhere in a work titled Cherried, a detail cropped from a Newton photograph of a nude appears so abstracted that the overall body is barely intelligible. Just as easily read as landscape, the bodies of Cooper’s paintings offer us images of femininity remapped.

Andrew Berardini