Introduction to Stephen Cooper: New Work

Kapil Jariwala Gallery 1995

Sacha Craddock

Stephen Cooper's new work seems to be in a state of strategic flux. The rats' nest of tangled piping, falling like hair from Medusa's head at one end of a huge wall construction, looks as though it might fall off. The appearance is unsettled, there is an air of irresolution here which is intrinsic to both the imagery and a changing sensibility. Such an unsettled appearance, encouraged by a highly extended and strangely improbable scale, shows an artist engaged in a balancing act whilst navigating a new routine.

There is a dramatic 'front', a range of atmosphere reminiscent of mildly cheap cinematic scenes where screeching tyres on gangsters' cars, for instance, converge at a downtown dockyard. While the materials that he uses are now, of course, far removed from their initial function they carry the scent of manufactured or invented danger and allow a half-hidden sense of worn and tacky association. The materials leave their domestic or municipal home and are transformed into elements for props. Any possible cosy association is soon lost through their use. Even the thin promise of comfort or 'home improvement' carries with it a clacky, encrusted, impasto quality reminiscent of floors, walls and counters of uncleaned motel chalet rooms.

But then Cooper is imbued with the formal sense of a painter. This current work marks a journey from one kind of physical arrangement to another. The work is caught frozen in this state. The pull of, for instance, colour working 'on its own' is counterposed with the encouragement that physical associations will automatically bring. The process betrays an almost adolescent glimpse of 'freedom'; a proto-anarchic thrill about the associations that 'real' materials can provide. It is a kind of first love that superstitiously refuses to be tidy or cover its tracks. And yet the objects still function as pictures in many ways. They are up on the wall at conventional height and encourage the eye to run from left to right and back again like figures across a frieze.

Hairy netting pushed and pulled through a roughly upholstered concertinaed front is held, clasped to the bosom, by an illusionistic patch of orange paint. 'Decoration' emerges from the painted as well as 'real' world. The music hall bravado of jaunty red velvet, cocktail cabinet padding and cigarette- strewn carpet lit by tobacco-stained floodlights is both actual and painted. The combination of very cheap materials on such an extended and improbable scale reaches a deliberate level of buffoonery.

Instead of conjuring abstract illusion out of the 'neutral' paint pot Cooper now uses the roll of felt, lino and lumpen carpet moving from two to three dimensions and back then again. The stack, heap, bundle or pile of material is unfurled, unrolled and opened up to become flat surface. It is then stapled or glued like cheap elements in a school tableau. At times the balancing act of painting returns to arrange, or check, dot the i's and cross the t's, in an attempt to gain an overview.

Colour is sprayed, stained and fixed. While no longer 'lost' within a swirl of two dimensions (pretending not to know what is going to happen next) Cooper does seem quite physically lost in this blustering bulk. In a strategically anti-lyrical move the actual material seems to have been hammered, stapled and glued with blithe speed by stage technicians. Once again the theatricality of the situation is contained in this 'temporary' exterior. The 'quality' of truth to the process (a sculptural equivalent of drawing in space) is evident and denied by the production of a shop front. Over time Cooper has progressed from en plein air to the theatrical and domestic; he has swapped light and air for a falsely-lit constructed reality.

There is a strange contradiction in the attitude to reality. It seems that a shift in process became necessary for him to break up the rectangular game of balancing, placing and shifting 'abstract' forms, line, colour and tone. It is as if the language of paint had become too much of a reality. Moving from two to three dimensions, or at least into a collage tradition, has allowed him to place more faith in the construction, to anticipate the potential of surprise within an unfamiliar process.

Although it might be sentimental and a touch disingenuous to claim a greater level of autobiography to this new work, it carries an element of coming home. This work avoids passive arrangement by being so formally overloaded that it could fuse, burst or break.

Sacha Craddock is a writer and critic.

Off line

Towner Art Gallery and The Winchester Gallery 2001

Matthew Rowe

The rise in the usage and proliferation of the personal computer and electronic technology has been one of the key cultural developments of the last three decades. This process is accelerating according to Moore’s Law, which states that computer processing speeds double every 18 months, which means that within a few decades computers will be able to process and make decisions far more efficiently and quickly than us. The spectre of the autonomous computer, capable of exceeding and challenging human thought, long typified by HAL 9000, the rogue computer in Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey is close at hand. Scientists exploring the world of cybernetics are confidently predicting the end for mankind, superseded by the technology we strove so hard to create, rejected by our offspring. Looking about us, almost every aspect of our lives has been influenced or altered in recent years by the microchip, new technology and mechanisation. The way we work, spend our leisure time, communicate with one another (text messaging, mobile phones and e-mail), report and hear the news, educate our children and ourselves, and even fall in love, have all been transformed by technological developments in recent years. Technology has introduced new vocabulary to the iconography of modern society; the mobile phone, the laptop, the display monitor and the Internet are never far away from us and images of the world we inhabit.

The act of painting is not one that immediately springs to mind when one tries to think of artists responding to these developments. Artists who use and embrace technology as the vehicle for their art from digital video and film to the Internet appear more appropriately positioned to explore society’s relationship with the machine. However, painting is a discipline grounded in a tradition that allows an alternative voice to an artist who wishes us to take stock and question a number of apparently positive aspects of new technology that we so often take for granted. These new paintings by Stephen Cooper are, on an immediate level, modern day still life compositions, taking and using imagery drawn from the everyday technological objects that have become ubiquitous and almost invisible to us. The shaped canvasses and unusual formats reference the shape of laptops, keyboards and screens whilst the painted imagery echoes textural instructions, control switches, buttons and computer graphics.

In the early years of the twentieth century Henri Matisse painted a series of still life paintings that grouped domestic objects in front of an open window allowing us glimpses of the world as framed and seen from the modern interior space. The computer screen can be viewed as the present day equivalent of the window, offering us access to fantastic new worlds of vision and information. Cooper's buttons and control panels are the props set up in front of the ambiguous space through the window/screen. Matisse explored the inter-relation of inside and outside in his paintings by blurring the distances he depicted through the use of saturated colour and tonality and by rhyming the shapes of the objects. His pictures became both windows through which we see the landscape, suggestive of perspectival space, and decorative compositions exploring harmony and rhythm across a flat surface. Similarly there is an ambiguity of space throughout Cooper’s paintings that place forms floating within a structure of undefined bands of colour that hint at perspective or horizon lines. This is compounded by the physicality of the painted surface that stresses the process of their manufacture and therefore flattens illusionistic space.

Cooper’s paintings not only depict space; they also occupy it. The canvases are stretched over shaped supports in three dimensions so that the paintings take on an almost sculptural quality. The larger paintings such as Forgotten, rest on the floor of the gallery space and lean against the wall with lower section of the painting projecting into the space of the viewer. Some of the smaller works directly mimic the forms of laptop computers with sections referring to the angle between keyboard and screen. Throughout his career as an artist, Cooper has consistently made work that celebrates its manufacture and the magic of unusual combinations of materials and textures. His work developed from his early two-dimensional work to take an interest in the fabricated object that became three-dimensional and more recently actively explored the space around it as installation. These current paintings demonstrate a return to the tradition of paint on canvas but retain an interest in the quality of the object. His work also looks natural, organic even, and strangely timeless. The scarred surfaces of the paintings are suggestive of a past life, or struggle that they have endured, hinting at larger forces at work which are beyond the artist's control. The artist Georgio De Chirico, who was instrumental in the development of 'metaphysical' painting in the early twentieth century, wrote in 1938,

'To be truly immortal a work of art must stand completely outside human limitations; logic and common sense are detrimental to it. Thus it approximates dream and infantile mentality...One of the strongest sensations left to us by prehistory is that of presage. It will always be with us. It is as it were an eternal proof of the non-sense of the universe.'[1]

What De Chirico was arguing for was an art that acknowledged forces beyond our own limited thought systems and thereby achieved the freedom of immortality. This involved the role of the subconscious in the creative act, of which Cooper is very aware. These current paintings involved applying and re-applying paint over periods of time, of designing and re-designing the image, until the artist was happy with the result. The overlaid paint layers contain partially erased ideas or thoughts, symbolic of the way in which our mind and memory function. They do not present clear and precise ideas or themes, rather they are made up of a series of signs and symbols that allude to our relationship with technology or the machine without ever proposing a clear answer to our questions.

Cooper is interested in the ambiguous nature of technology, on the one hand offering all the freedom we could possibly ever want, on the other, predetermining our choice and free will, channeling our thoughts through narrow gateways. The technology of the microchip is often termed information technology, but do we ever stop to question what kind of information it allows us access to? Does universal access to all periods of history at the click of a button really allow us to interpret and understand this information objectively? The fact that more and more people have access to the Internet and mobile phones does not mean we communicate with each other better. In fact an underclass of the 'unconnected' has become apparent, challenging the orthodoxy of future universal access to technology. And in any case, if we are unable to communicate and form meaningful relationships and social bonds in any real sense because we have virtual friends and pets, what effect is this technology having on our society? The contrast between the banality of the slick look of the virtual world and the untidy and dirty reality of life is demonstrated by the deliberate naivety of imagery in Cooper’s paintings. By picturing components and symbols of new technology in intentionally crude terms he comments on the authenticity of experience within the ultra clean world of virtual technology.

The imagery of technology within these paintings includes spiky logos, dotted lines, push buttons and text instructions that might appear in screen savers and text messages or on a keyboard. The painted words often form the titles of the paintings and are open ended and ambiguous. Ain’t No 1 is a clear pun but once we translate it to take on the figurative sense, the negative aspect becomes clear. Other titles are less playful (Forgotten, You Start You Finish) and contribute to the general sense of melancholy and loss within the paintings. The loss is a loss of innocence that many of us are experiencing at present in our relationship with technology. For years we have been told and generally accepted that technological advancement was just that; a positive development that brought untold benefits to mankind and our evolving relationship with nature. However, within recent years, there has been a technological revolution that threatens to change our way of life irrevocably. Achievements within the fields of genetics will alter our relationship with the food chain through modification and with our natural reproductive process through organ cloning. The current moral debates on these issues reveal our new of fear of technology. The link between text and message is made clear in one of the final paintings produced for the exhibition, Anticipate, which includes the image of a hangman’s noose. Other examples of the most recent paintings in the series such as Push, that pictures a button, Depression, in which the text has been crossed out, and the deliberately dyslexic Down Upside are humorous yet dark. There is also a menacing aspect to much of the imagery, for example, the floating circular shape that features in a number of works including Forgotten, Ain’t No 1 and Continued has a cellular, organic feel that together with its cog-like outline suggests a rogue living machine gone wild. We have seen how a computer screen might represent the window device for a modern day painter of still life, but Cooper sees the screen not only formally but also symbolically. Windows are often portrayed in literature as the means of escape from confinement and it is this potential freedom from the menace of the machine that is a theme in these paintings.

Cooper’s painting operates on a number of different and often contradictory levels, refusing to be pigeon-holed satisfactorily. Having explored Cooper’s interest in the human inter-relationship with machines and technology it is important not to forget that these paintings have been made in response to two quite different gallery spaces; the 18th century domestic rooms of the Towner Art Gallery and the modern civic architecture of The Winchester Gallery at Winchester School of Art. Cooper has responded to the brief of a site-specific painting project by making two distinct exhibitions from the same body of work produced over the last 12 months. This catalogue brings together images of the paintings alongside the empty spaces at each venue to illustrate the creative process of making a site–specific installation. The walls of the gallery spaces represent the blank canvas and the paintings are the individual brush stokes that the artist applies to create the exhibition. One does not exist completely without the other. He is interested in the way in which art can not only respond physically to a given space, playing with the quirky and irregular shapes of the Towner for example, but also explore how a building relates to its own setting. The floor to ceiling bay windows of the Towner make you acutely aware of the landscape beyond the gallery walls. The wide horizons and seascapes that characterized the artist's experiences of visiting Eastbourne find reflection in the elongated horizontals of works such as Hold On and You Start You Finish. The monumentality of the large rectangular space at Winchester has informed the selection of work for that venue, resulting in a grouping of massive works that create a series of windows through the blank walls of the solely top lit gallery.

Ultimately these paintings represent a protest. The title of this exhibition, Off line, is a playful use of the current buzzword relating to the world of the Internet and surfing the World Wide Web. When working offline on your computer you are not connected actively to the web, but using the software at your own leisure, not hassled by your phone bill, producing a mass of e-mails that you will unleash simultaneously into the system. It somehow evokes working beyond or outside the system and when considered alongside the titles (Hold On, Forgotten), the sombre tonality and the expressive monumentality of the paintings themselves, the title Off line can be read differently. These paintings deliberately and bravely defy the critics that wrongly sideline or overlook painting in the 21st century. This is not some empty 'Stuckist' gesture against the jury of the Turner Prize. By allowing us space and time to consider our relationships with technology and machines, these works champion the role of painting and the artist to act as a metaphor for the world of our subconscious and memory. They therefore become signs of our ultimate difference from machines, our ability to question and reason subjectively using memory and chance rather than an over reliance on the processing of facts quickly and efficiently.

Matthew Rowe is the Artistic Director of the Towner Art Gallery, Eastborne.

1. The Oxford Companion to Art, edited by Harold Osborne, Oxford at the Clarendon Press 1970, p. 713.

Stephen Cooper: New Work, Kapil Jariwala

Time Out, December 1995

Sarah Kent

Glue on the carpet, peanut butter in your hair, paint on the upholstery; Stephen Cooper’s wall reliefs suggest the mayhem created by unruly children. Titles such as Peckham and MK Living (Milton Keynes Living) suggest that his congealed surfaces are rebellious outbursts - frustrated desires to despoil the parental home. Rolls of carpet are impregnated with resin and corrugated underlay is thickly coated with paint. The cack-handed results are both repellent and celebratory. Peckham is like a pouf daubed with paint and hung with an undercarriage of string to resemble a war-like jelly-fish. In The Nature of Perception, lengths of knotted plastic hose hang, like tousled rasta dreads, over a semicircular wodge of carpet. A bar of underlay leads to a wedge of carpet rolls and underlay, edged with rubber matting, as though it were a barrier, padded cell or the innards of a rotting sofa. As if it weren’t monstrous enough, the object is coated in black paint and decorated with an oval of orange underlay and a band of red carpet - as misplaced as spots of rouge rubbed onto ancient cheeks. The exhibition is reminiscent of bizarre encounters on the tube. A cylinder hung with sting and painted blue, like deranged nylon, is titled Wig. PDF Hat is named after the impressive headgear worn by one of the witnesses in Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation.

A good deal of humour obviously attends the making of these grotesque excrescences, but it’s hard to gauge what response the artist hopes for. Should we be appalled and insist that he clears up the mess, or indulge him with understanding nods and smiles?

Turning Japanese

Edith-Marie Pasquier talks to Stephen Cooper about his residency at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and to Dr Christopher Brown, the museum's director.

a-n Magazine, August 2004

Walking up the steps to the entrance of the Ashmolean Museum, the intense sunlight appears to overexpose the museum's wide courtyard. The contrast between the external and interior environments of the museum could not be starker; the conservation lighting and the subdued surroundings jar with the intensity of light. To the left, I notice Cooper’s oil painting’s in glass cabinets, two large and unexpectedly intensely coloured objects marked with short texts: intimate spaces between painting and architecture – an interior within an interior. These works present the culmination of the artist’s residency with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where Cooper has taken Japanese folding screens and the concept of the museum display case as a starting point for his intervention.

'The intervention,' Cooper explains, 'started from a response to the Ashmolean, but it depends where you draw the line. Really, it started from the first museum I ever went into. It has to do with the history of going to museums, and being involved with other cultures and histories. When I moved from London to Winchester I started to look for museums around the country and remembered what a good collection the Ashmolean has. So with this in mind, I walked into the Ashmolean and was left inspired by the collection. I thought it was a wonderful collection, there was an intimacy here, it held a value of its own against the larger Victoria and Albert or British Museums.'

Cooper’s considered approach quietly asks a museum audience to interpret the collection in a playful manner. Dr Christopher Brown, Director of the Ashmolean Museum observes, 'What we are asking people to do is to adjust their vision from the historic type of Japanese screen. What Stephen has done is to use this ancient form and rewrite it in a contemporary way. The people who come into the museum and expect to see the traditional screens do ask, 'What is going on here?'. They will recognise that the form is familiar but what is not so familiar is the language.'

Cooper’s intervention began with a visit to Japan to research painted screens from the Edo period in the foundations and museums of Tokyo and the temples of Kyoto. Cooper reflects: 'Initially, my proposal to Dr Brown was, like many proposals, too large and probably too ambitious for what I was thinking of doing. But over time and through discussions with different curators here, especially Oliver Impey, now the retired curator of the Japanese section, I decided to focus on Japan. Oliver is an important authority on Japanese art and especially on Japanese screens of the Edo period. Japan has always had a fascination for me. It is completely immersed in many areas within Western culture - you just have look at Van Gogh and Monet. Also, not forgetting that when I was sixteen or seventeen, Kurisawa’s films such as The Seven Samurai on black and white TV made a huge impression. I’d think, What is this that I am seeing?'

'The Ashmolean gave me unlimited access to the collection. It was of such value that I could work so closely with the collection. I would travel up to the museum from Winchester on Monday and see the screens out of the cabinets where I could make drawings and sketches in a more informal way, which was great and I learnt a lot from this.'

Brown acknowledges Cooper’s commitment to this open and evolving dialogue: 'Having Stephen in the building has been a great pleasure. An artist who particularly wants to work here, who says 'this is a collection that I know well and I really want to work with it', is very attractive to us. That resonates with me and is a very good starting point.'

A successful grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Borard (AHRB) allowed Cooper to open up the residency further. 'The grant enabled me to do lots of things. It enabled me to travel to Japan to see the original works in their original context. I received money to cover materials for the final exhibition. I was given administrative and organisation funding and quite importantly, it enabled me to set up a website and make a video which is now permanently in the museum archive.'

Cooper’s visit to Japan –although only lasting for two weeks – had a marked effect on the residency. 'The visit was short but very focused. I visited traditional screens in the collections but also experienced other parts of Japanese culture. I visited many major collections both contemporary and modern, but it was the Nezu Foundation that impressed me most. There is a different approach in Japan to the showing of work as it is based upon seasons and the seasons dictate what is shown – the screens are shown in April and May during the flowering of the cherry blossom and iris. The work is often very minimal but of high quality. A striking difference is the contrast between Tokyo and Kyoto. In Kyoto, the screens are displayed in situ as part of the architecture, not a separate artefact to be visited in a museum. They are part of the whole environment, part of a room that has a view out of its window. This environment has been arranged and affected so that it appears almost as a painting. The emphasis on artifice, which was apparent in Japan in the fifteenth and ssixteenth centuries, is very unusual. Every element of what you are looking at has been constructed so that it doesn’t feel that way. We are much more conscious of this mediation in our culture and this affected the narrative language of my work.'

Cooper’s intervention plays with the language of artifice and interior space: 'The iconography of the work is really to do with the interior of spaces and yet there are many more crossovers, my ironic use of Haiku, for example.' There are also traces to the artist’s earlier themes and processes such as locating interior memories and responding to colour with varying levels of emotion. Colour is important to Cooper, 'The colours within the paintings are very much influenced by Japan. In Japan, I noted that the three predominant colours are pink, green and orche.' Cooper also referred 'to the white cards with writing and numbers on. That is a reflection of the environment that they are in, the labeling of the different pots and vases and lotus flowers. It is a reflection of what is going on in the museum environment.'

Brown, previously director of the artist-in-residency programme at the National Gallery, London, is keen to develop further the Ashmolean’s engagement with contemporary artists. 'As an extension of our artist-in-residency programme we are planning to provide a studio for artists within the museum. But for the moment, we provide the contact with the museum and with individual departments and curators. Artists working with our collection are very important as they provide a valuable way in for many people. It is interesting for artists to confront the sort of questions that the general public brings to their studio when they ask, What are you doing that for?'

For Cooper there was an unexpected element to this residency he had not foreseen – he was able to work with an assistant, the artist Anthony Key, funded by the AHRB for his opening in May of this year. 'This revealed another layer to the intervention, working almost like an improvisation. We hit some technical difficulties when installing. Firstly, there was a fan pipe at the back of the screen, which had not previously been visible. We thought we were going to have to cut the floor to fit the the paintings in. But in fact what happened when talking the ideas over with Anthony was that we raised the floor and this actually helped the work. It was significant. I was really pleased with that and it became part of the unfolding process, a process that has taken three years. 'Now I feel I am beginning something in this work, the connections, the historical context …. I am going to take all of this further.'

Edith-Marie Pasquier is an artist and writer.

Stephen Cooper, Smith-Jariwala

Time Out, July/August 1989

Robert Macdonald

Stephen Cooper is a dedicated painter who has worked in some isolation since leaving the Royal College 10 years ago, showing in only a few mixed exhibitions and teaching at Winchester. In recent years he has explored a deep interest in Buddhism, and in these new paintings the influence of Eastern philosophy and Chinese and Japanese work is obvious in a constant play of opposites - solid areas of singing colour contrasting with dramatic calligraphic brushwork. His colours open up a serene space and his sweeping blacks recall the bold expressionism of Franz Kline. The gallery describes these paintings as having 'a tough lyricism rare and unattempted in the art of recent years', and there is truth in this, for Cooper is attempting to take forward a form of abstract expressionism relating to the the post-war fascination with Zen, widespread in America but not so powerfully felt among artists in Britain. He brings to the task an exciting painterly energy, a poetic feeling for movement and colour and a dogged toughness which contrasts with the lyricism and enhances the play of opposites.