an open book – plain to see : dr. ryya bread
edgarmodern fine art 2012
“Our house was full of her notebooks, drawings and paintings and over the years I have watched her journey from kitchen pin-board to gallery wall.”
Carol Cooper, Mother of the Artist 2010
The Latin word diurnus, meaning ‘of the day’, is the root to both the word ‘journal’ and ‘journey’. It is in the relationship between these three terms – ‘day’, ‘journal’ and ‘journey’ that an open book is read here. With a title like this you expect a certain transparency to the exhibition it is headlining. Yet transparency, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and often to see one’s way ‘through’, certain questions, like crumbs on a path, help navigate the terrain.
First there is the question: to what book might this title speak of ?
The title, an open book, makes direct reference to a single journal that forms the basis for this collection of new paintings by Jessica Cooper. The journal spans the period between early March and June 2012 and contains constant drawings that are the bedrock of Cooper’s artistic practice. Specifically, this book features a series of drawings of the sights gleaned from the passenger car window on a trip to Warwickshire. This is followed by more made while staying as a guest in a house at the other end of that car ride. The remainder of the pages of the journal are filled with further drawings upon the return home to the artist’s native county and permanent residence, Cornwall.
‘Transparency’, taken at face value, implies something that is plain to see, and this ‘open book’ is offered up in true keeping with this notion – on show at Edgar Modern alongside the paintings that it has spawned. This is more than mere display – as the book is available to pick up, to handle and peruse, offering an intimate opportunity to see the progression, indeed a journey, of images and ideas from initial marks made often in fleeting moments to the more developed paintings that finally leave the studio and hang on the gallery walls.
Thus the second question: how to read an open book?
All the obvious information about Cooper’s career, style and approach has been reiterated and repeated in ever interesting and seemingly exhaustive ways: previous commentators have touched on her strong family life rooted in Cornwall; her reoccurring thematic references to everyday objects and ordinary life; her combined techniques derived of memory and observation; the significance of titles in her work and her simplicity of style, usually equated with a minimal aesthetic. In discussing the work of such an artist, with a very limited and repeated range of subject matter who aspires to a minimum of mark making – what, I pondered, was left to say that has not already been covered well?
What is interesting about this question is that the same could be asked of the artist: after a lifetime of painting bowls of fruit, vases of flowers, houses, chairs and a small variation of other objects, what is left for Cooper to paint that she has not already painted well? Why keep returning to the same images? When discussing the motivations behind her own work, the refrain heard most loud and clear from Cooper herself is “because I love to paint” – the title of her Edgar Modern exhibition in 2010. The simplicity of this sentiment echoing the minimalism applauded in her visual style. This attribute is described by Wild as a “journey of editing and uncluttering” to achieve the “economical line of true draughtsmanship” (2006).
Cooper deploys exercises of restriction, austerity measures if you like; in the same way the poetic form of a traditional Japanese haiku enjoys a restriction of syllables per line and lines per poem to distil the meaning. Thus we see this as a fundamental technique in her approach to painting: the sights during a car journey from A to B, the ‘foreign’ objects of a friend’s kitchen while staying over, a favourite cup from her own cupboard painted every day, a single journal as the basis for a new body of work…these are just a few examples of this in her practice that set the stage for the real drama…her passion for painting.
Thus we arrive at a third question: What possible journeys are contained within an open book?
There are different kinds of journeys to consider. I have already noted above the most literal one, the return trip to Warwickshire. ‘Journey’ also describes a process that moves from a starting point through a progression to another place or position – such as Cooper’s career as her mother described it in the opening quote, or Wild’s description of her journey through the painting process to arrive at her desired aesthetic above
There is a journey that takes place in taking a drawing from the journal as the basis for a painting. As Cooper describes it an aspect of a drawing sets the painting in motion and then the painting takes on a life of its own with its own formal demands and challenges to work through. The drawing in the book and the painting are not the same thing, even if inspired by the same emotive source or compositional elements. The relationship between drawing and painting is crucial to Cooper’s practice.
In addition to the connection between the drawings in the journal and the paintings on the wall, within the paintings themselves there is a dialogue between these elements that I would argue provides the narrative to what might otherwise be mistaken for inanimate objects. It is this painterly device that I believe strikes the chord of ‘pathos’ in Cooper’s paintings.
Cooper uses minimal applications of fields of colour within an otherwise graphic use of line. But this is now painting, not drawing, as determined by the utensil for mark making and the surface it is applied to. This has the effect of fleshing out individual elements in the composition – giving them the spotlight in some theatrical drama we are invited to witness without having the back-story. The flower still life motif in particular seems to tell little vignettes in this way. Although the compositions often appear very similar, the dramas are individual and vary with each piece. This is how Cooper can return to the seemingly same motif over and over, day after day, and yield new material every time.
For example, what love is made of is a rectangular canvas depicting three flowers protruding from the circular rim of the vase against a white background. Only one of the flowers is imbued with colour – as if to say ‘this is the star of the show’, the protagonist of the story – the others literally ‘wall flowers’. In pink campion however we have the full bloom in the foreground of the floral arrangement and yet it is the drooping outline of a flower on the right-hand side of the vase that holds the resonance of the image, as if we all can appreciate the feeling of fading into obscurity as the line fades into the background of the composition. The painting process and the precise application of paint are not simply an enhancement to the drawing for Cooper – but an opportunity to reveal much more complex interrelationships at play within the visual field.
And so to one last question – what does an open book reveal?
In talking with Cooper there seems to emerge a certain ‘corollary of colour’: the more colour dominates a canvas the more exploratory the investigation – while at the same time, the more ‘empty’ space that surrounds a single line or gesture the more confident, resolved, and resolute is the statement. These boldly painted pieces such as Orla Kiely purse on the table speak to fields of colour, landscapes that Cooper travels through in her journey towards a single line that will say what she means to convey to arrive at her intended destination in this case one could argue with up to the last minute. And yet it is the journey, as much as the destination offers up lessons of living and in Cooper’s case, painting.
The Warwickshire journey offers one final point here, the importance of both setting out and returning home, back to the familiar. This is a sentiment captured in a piece included in the show return from London. ‘Setting out’ serves as an analogy to ‘beginnings’ and although this painting precedes the journal and the idea to base the show on a series of paintings derived from its pages, nonetheless, for Cooper it marks the beginning of the journey for this body of work. It also serves as a reminder that all rules are made to occasionally be broken…
For Cooper, returning home in this new body of work is equated with a return to ‘colour’– not literally, since colour has never truly left her work, but in her acceptance of it. In an interview with Cooper in her studio she described how prominent colour had been in her painting up until fifteen years ago and how since then she has challenged herself to say what needed to be said without hiding behind its distracting effect.
Now with this new work the colour is allowed to come to the foreground of her palate again – it has something to say in its own right. In pomegranate grey the fruit bowl becomes a structure to enable each piece of fruit to be an experiment with colour. Cooper goes on to articulate what the last fifteen years has taught her, that “if the fruit was white the response would be very different”. She now has a confidence to control the readings and regulate the responses she wants to illicit in her use of colour. Of all my doubts to rest – Cooper proclaims a “joy” in using colour, and describes how the bare white canvas is painted over with white paint to “push the colour out” rather than cover it over.
The structures that Cooper puts in place allow her to practice painting and drawing without having to ask the reasons why. Within the confines of her self-imposed restrictions for any given piece she has a purposeful objective laid out like a path to lead the way. Cooper’s paintings do not pose questions but are each day’s answer to them: stating observations, making possible propositions and resolving the unrelenting riddles inherent in formal conventions of painting. She gets enough information back from her approach to keep moving forward down her chosen path. Tomorrow’s riddles and tomorrow’s resolutions may look strikingly similar to todays or even yesterdays, but that does not mean that the terrain remains the same from one moment to the next.
In this specific body of work, and in her practice generally, even the self-imposed restrictions cannot limit the options and Cooper herself must navigate through the plethora of possibilities contained even within the single journal. Rather than feeling that she is beating a dead horse by returning to familiar territory, Cooper’s austere attitude yields abundance. She exclaims that she has so much more to say, so many things left untouched, whole tangents to follow up another time- in short a lifetime of painting ahead of her that wild horses could not keep away. Ultimately, painting is the activity Cooper wants to do on a daily basis –she makes choices to structure her practice so that she can make that part of her everyday life because she simply “loves to paint” and that, above all else, is plain to see in an open book.
Cooper, C. (2010) “foreword”. In because I love to paint, Edgar Modern, Bath: ‘jc’
Cooper, J. (2012) an open book [recorded interview by Dr. Ryya Bread] St. Just, Cornwall, 20 August 2012
Wild, C. (2006) “introduction”. In jessica cooper at The Stour Gallery, Warwickshire: The Stour Gallery
Photographs by author