2014 just turn left edgar modern
essay olivia mcewan
Jessica Cooper RWA searches for the quiet, core vitality of things. Everyday objects and shapes are represented via their most essential outlines and details, rendered with a perception and confidence of stroke that communicates immediately their form and vigour. This economy of detail is balanced by an economy of colour; by deliberately limiting herself to a muted palette with carefully judged interjections of brightness, Cooper further emphasises the quality and importance of linear composition: here the strength of line sings. Subjects are unassuming and stem from our everyday habitat, from fruit and bowls, to trees and furniture, to more abstract shapes and pattern. It is brought to our attention the quiet beauty and significance of the physical impression of things we ordinarily would not take time to consider. In this way, Cooper’s sharp visual attentiveness picks up on the little beauty of things around us, like pointing out something we missed in familiar items, and teaches us the keen essentiality of it. We come to recognise and find pleasure in the essential items which populate our everyday visual landscape.
Born, raised and now based in Cornwall, the openness of the sea and the surrounding flat landscape communicates itself through her work in the preponderance on surface planes and the compulsive drive for simplicity. Cooper cites her experiences near the sea and surfing as integral to her focus on linearity; that wading out into the open and leaving the trappings of modern life behind translates itself visually to the stripping of forms to their single defining lines with clear and uncluttered focus. Indeed, in an apt metaphor she describes her work as seeking “to find the single wave that makes up the sea”.
In the quest for the core linearity of objects, Cooper similarly explores the very function and properties of the painting surface. There are no facets and modelling to her objects and shapes, but a deliberately minimalist approach which utilises the bare canvas itself, contrasting with painted areas and the varying layers built up in clearly and definitely delineated surface sections. She finds a fascination with the idea of white canvas; just as she questions the exact form which represents an object, she questions why unpainted canvas is seen as ‘unfinished’ and thus not part of the painting. At what level of modelling can one call an object sufficiently represented, and similarly at what level within the layers of canvas surface do we regard as treated or finished? Beginning from the naturally coloured canvas rather than a sealed and brilliant white surface, savouring its inherent visual qualities as equally relevant to the properties of the finished piece, she likens herself to relatives in her own family who worked as furniture polishers; affording greater attention to priming, conditioning and building layers of substance.
The resulting pictorial space is more abstract with its delineating lines and boundaries than representational; it represents the eye as it immediately beholds, flat and without recognising spatial depth. Lacking in modelling, items appear within the flat plane of all other elements. In this way Cooper succeeds in representing objects as visually stripped back as possible – being of one level of depth, without projecting foreground or receding background – but also in capturing the most primal experience of the seeing eye, registering only outlines of things before the brain calculates a mental impression of actual depth. In this way, there is only a slim distance between images more faithfully representing recognisable objects and scenes, and compositions of increasingly abstract design. Some pieces blur the categories of abstract and representational, being the result of Cooper’s remembered impression of something, or a depiction that is so stripped back as to be a shape suggestive of any number of familiar and unfamiliar items, bringing into question how much faith we put in our remembrance of the form of things. We feel we know the form and character of an item from memory, yet become surprised when it differs from our brain’s visual impression. This raises the issue questioning the very importance we attach to the accurate recording of the shape of things, both in memory and in art.
This close, highly concentrated focus on surface and line does not however signify that Cooper’s work is stiff and heavily formalised, or the rendering laboured. On the contrary, there is a delightful spontaneity throughout her work that exudes a sense of immediacy, movement and playfulness. Objects appear simultaneously still yet vibrant, as if freshly made. This is informed by her constantly working eye, absorbing and noting the shapes and forms around her. She relies heavily on sketchbooks to record her flashes of inspiration either in person or recalled from memory, and unafraid to compose using impressions gleaned from things seen. The emphasis is not to slavishly record, but to find the key impression which defines the item, as she suggests “to get to the heart of things”. It is a refreshing and revitalising method of work which defies the immovable tradition of representational painting.
Given this, when we revisit the idea of capturing the eye’s impression at its most instinctive and immediate encounter with what is presented to it at any one time, we can understand her pieces in the context of her recalled visions throughout her sketchbook and memory; it is easy to recall a general impression of something and feel as if we know it intimately, yet pressed to define its exact shape, we find that the brain has not recorded these details with greater precision. What we find is that by depicting an image using only its most essential characteristics, this is more than enough to evoke the feel and significance of the items seen. In this manner Cooper’s paintings seem at once familiar and comfortable, yet non-specific, suggestive or even uncanny. Being simultaneously still, calm and eternal, her vibrancy of line and whimsical linearity lends a deceptive impact to her pieces.