2018 the intimate landscape belgrave gallery
introduction elizabeth knowles
For these new paintings, Jessica Cooper has allowed herself to look back as well as forward. It is her usual practice to engage with places where her eye was suddenly caught, where a moment of particular significance might have occurred, and to develop these random (but not random) subjects though a body of work in which a theme can emerge like a special thread through a tapestry. After a period of upheaval that included moving house, three trips to the West Coast of America, experimenting with digital media and film and some time-consuming but successful forays into textile design, her current work seems to settle itself back into ideas and subjects drawn from home ground. The new sense of freedom she feels is expressed in the most familiar of landscapes – the far western edge of Cornwall, but also in another place for which she feels a special love: the village of Messanges on the south west coast of France. The wilder landscape of sand dunes and marshland in France and that characteristic french village mis-en-scene with its potted palms and shuttered windows, have taken their place alongside the artist’s most familiar places at home in West Penwith. Besides the paintings of plants and trees and houses, boats and beaches and birds, there is a significant group of images of the Island in St Ives, the famous little building set on its hump at the seaward end of the town and standing for all the legends of West Cornwall. For Cooper its familiarity is like a touch-stone of home.
She speaks of a wiping clean, followed by a sense of freedom to revisit old ideas and the new work is expressed in a freer, less technically controlled way of painting. She likens it to getting back to the natural flow of handwriting after the constraints of calligraphy. Furthermore, images photographed on her mobile phone have become just as important as her ever-open sketchbook. Cooper has often sought to reveal the sources of her paintings by showing her first quick sketches and here she has compiled a film of imagery from both locations as part of the exhibition, titled ‘I never want to lose another day’.
These new paintings present a key characteristic of Cooper’s work, namely the purposeful and formally deliberate expression of a very brief moment of perception. A thing she sees hits some very particular inner button, and its depiction resonates for ever afterwards. Looking at her work, we don’t see what she was thinking but we do see how it is that such moments occur, and thus how mind and memory can chime with extraordinary poignancy at certain moments with a glimpse of a tree, a house, a view of the sea. The titles she attaches to these beautifully clear paintings are simple but poetic, brief and tantalising. They may describe but they also point to ambiguities as in ‘Are we fishing?’, or to the thoughts of the moment such as ‘a morning with you’ or ‘where it all started again’. For Cooper herself, the paintings and their titles refer to …’really intense and specific memories’.
Despite a lifetime of painting, Jessica Cooper is always uncertain of the outcome, of the coherence of an exhibition she has worked carefully to produce: ‘will it come off?’ she asks herself. Certainly, the present sense of a new freedom has involved ‘…a letting-go of fear’ and even re-examining how to paint, how to express yourself. She knows better what she’s doing in the studio, she says. Working is integral to her life and an equilibrium has been achieved.