simple gestures . foreword by anne l cowe phd
2008 in between lines . edgar modern
Like the artist, at first impression Jessica Cooper’s paintings are strikingly confident and forthright. Their beautifully concise lines and decisive forms, however, belie their subtle ambiguities and the painstaking work which has gone into them. Her self- assured technique is the result of a gradual and meticulous process, working through her ideas and uncertainties. Recounting the development of both her career and artistic techniques, the artist’s self-questioning perfectionism and unrelenting determination is clear.
After her foundation year at the Falmouth School of Art, it was her studies in Textiles and Fine Art at Goldsmith’s College, London, which seem to have been most formative. While the elements of embroidery and weave developed a strong awareness of texture, her experience of printmaking focussed conversely on the graphic and two-dimensional. And although these aspects remain highly influential in her work, it was in painting and sketching that Jessica found her true vocation. Having explored the potential of colour and discovering the power of the ‘line’ she established the roots of her unmistakable style. Hinging her decision on the outcome of her first exhibition in Penzance, she resolved to return to Cornwall and begin her career as a painter. With recent accolades such as her invitation to exhibit in the ‘Art Now Cornwall’ exhibition at the Tate St. Ives as well as her election to the Royal West of England Academy she feels vindicated in her choice. Now, this current exhibition demonstrates the culmination of her experience through a selection of her newest work.
While Jessica never lets her creativity be restricted by prescribed themes, the paintings in the exhibition all share her distinctive minimalism. It is often the most trivial items that become the subject. Yet it is paradoxically the unequivocal appearance of subject, line and form which allows for an enduring sense of subtlety and ambiguity. Underlying the simplicity of each image is a suggestion of emotional depth and meaning, whether through intended imperfections or quirks of composition or technique. The carefully chosen titles will often confirm or provoke such associations.
The fruit bowl from her kitchen table has become a familiar muse. Just as the bowl contains the luscious seasonal fruits, the outlines restrain the spheres of colour as well as, perhaps, the expression of emotion. The uniqueness of each emerges from her observation of the moment. In Tumble and in Counting Out, oranges are poised precipitously waiting to spill out of the bowl. And in Goodness Gracious and Juicy Fruits, through the subtle shades and textures she delicately recreates each ripening or fading fruit. The sense of ephemerality contrasts against the solidity of line and the permanence of paint.
In a similar way, Jessica loves to paint flowers as they transform from bud into bloom. Her technique of layering and peeling away paint gives the petals their ethereal fragility. The additional emotional significance that people often attach to flowers is not misplaced in these works. Coupled with their titles the flower paintings often become visual metaphors for human relationships – tender sentiments expressed through simple lines and gestures.
It is the simplicity of subject and composition which allows space for such associations. For this reason, less obviously sentimental subjects seem all the more powerful in their poignancy. It only takes the suggestive outline of a particular chair to provoke thoughts of who might have sat there and where are they now? It is the lack of visual information, the stripping away of detail to the essential elements, which allows space and clarity.
While Jessica always takes inspiration for her subjects from her daily environment, perhaps surprisingly for a Cornish artist Jessica paints relatively few landscapes. Those included in this exhibition relate to her travels in Spain rather than to her home environment. Having grown up in Cornwall, she has never experienced the dramatic novelty of the rocky coast, undulating moorlands and ever-changing skies. Her art is not so much influenced by Cornwall, she says, it is part of her. The sense of space and openness has become instilled in her psyche and pervades her compositions. For the same reason that she goes surfing, to find that total emptiness of space, her quest for minimalism in her paintings allows an emotional release. The simple outlines act as a versatile armature from which the mind’s thoughts and feelings are free to grow.
For Jessica the act of painting is cathartic as much as it is creative. Rather than expressing herself through the application of paint, however, it is through the physical reduction of the different layers that she methodically peels away any superfluous excess. Gradually applying blocks of colour over the same area and each time scraping them away as they dry, she repeats the process until she is satisfied that it is completed. In paintings such as Rose Bud, this technique begins to question our notions of positive and negative imagery.
The beauty and form of the flower has been both created and revealed by the peeling away of strips from the densely layered surface. Like with people – the artist explains – if a person goes out with a lot of make-up on, are you just seeing a façade? And if you then take the make-up off do you actually see the real person?
It is perhaps for this reason that Jessica never paints figures, since their external features and gestures always have their own prescriptive implications and superficial affectations. Whereas each composition can be appreciated at face value, for the genius of technique and observation, it is the artist’s emotional conversation with her subjects which gives an enduring focus. Jessica never dictates how her works should be interpreted. Her compositions are instead an invitation to explore the inner character of the subject, and to form personal associations amid their multiple layers. Whereas the ‘real person’ may not be something that can ever be visualised, it can perhaps be discovered – in between the lines.