2006 the stour gallery
Tucked away amongst the granite of Penwith, Jessica Cooper has lived and worked in the isolation of Britain’s most south westerly outcrop of land for most of her life. Her connection with Cornwall is significant. Brought up in a remote hamlet, perched between the north coast cliffs and Penwith moor, her early years were filled with the adventure of rugged, rural living. Childhood exploration of craggy tor’s, wild beaches, empty moors and boggy footpaths implanted a visual language that has informed her work for years hence. This early and onward sense of close knit family and belonging has undoubtedly instilled the core values she demonstrates today. Through memory, observation and thoughtful intent her work is loaded with artistic integrity and an appreciation of simply being.
Rooted in the familiarity of place, people and the objects that surround her, Cooper continually references ordinary things that imply ordinary living. By sharing her observations of the apparently mundane, a resonant potency is granted to the humble ‘things’ that surround us. Compositions are pared down with the economical line of true draughtsmanship and in a process of reduction familiar objects and places are granted a renewed status. On this journey of editing and uncluttering, everyday chaos is reduced to calm and line and colour are given equal significance with the content.
Utter conviction and clarity is required to achieve such understated minimalism. The austere, balanced, exactness of the work can arrive in a moment of responsive drawing as much as it can from weeks of layering, removing and adding. On one occasion Cooper recalls her reaction to a flock of rooks passing her kitchen window. With each mark carrying the inescapable weight of consequence she drew with speed and precision as the flight crossed the sky line. Taking moments to finish, her ability to chance a perfect stroke rendered it one of her best and the drawing remains a favourite of hers and of the fortunate collector who acquired it. Whether labouring deliberately or responding intuitively, Cooper’s decision making process consistently provides these sparse compositions an intelligent and thoughtful outcome.
Despite Cooper’s fascination with the familiar, new territory can spark recurring subjects. A recent trip to the Canary Islands provided an alternative landscape to explore, and whilst there was little in the barren landscape that really fired her, one image nagged her relentlessly. The vivid green of a Spanish parrot set against a volcanic steely grey embedded itself in her mind’s eye. It’s synchrony with her pursuit for balance in colour and form has caused her to return to the image again and again. Exorcising on to paper the primary essence of her subject in the most limited of lines, is a perfectionist’s path. Throughout her career, significant motifs have recurred in a continual pattern of inquiry. The leaf, chair back or solitary cup are just some that have besieged her compositions for over fifteen years. It will be interesting to see whether the parrot has the significance to quantify such staying power.
The criterion for an object or place’s inclusion is deeply personal. This may account for the attack of crushing nerves Cooper feels every time she delivers a lecture on her work. Wrestling with self doubt has long been an issue. Working with the legacy of St Ives post war era on her heels, she often questions the context of her work and how it will be perceived. Occasionally a painting will be worked until the Cooper parity is all but lost and one wonders if at these times she is fighting the demons of expectation, working in a frenzy of proof that she is a ‘real painter’. As she has matured, these moments have grown fewer and she is more accepting that her images are valid regardless of how long they have taken or how much paint lags their surface. Her growing self-possession has been endorsed by the acclamation she has received. In 2005 she won both the RWA Highly Commended Award and the University of the West of England Drawing Quarters Award. This support alongside a continued discourse with the contemporary art scene and a history of national exhibitions has provided the platform for Cooper to finally realise she is onto a good thing.
Through the surface, fluidity of line, soft palette and whispered minutia of detail, these paintings hold their own, rendering the time spent on each inconsequential. In so many ways these paintings are about the bare bones of life, paring everything to the core in order to access the most primary, vulnerable response. In “Lone Tree”, for example, the granite grey slab of its surroundings not only focuses attention on the drawn image but also implies an atmosphere of lonely isolation. Her titles demonstrate the same clarity. With deliberate transparency, titles such as “A Dozen Red Roses” convince us that we are not missing the point. Cooper is not alluding to an intellectual, academic concept and neither should she. These paintings are a personal allegory of ordinary life that can touch every one of us and ultimately through their thoughtful competence, and beautiful construction that is more than enough.