Artist profile: Justin Cooper 

click to enlarge Justin Cooper's new exhibit is called 'Missed the Boat.' - MARK LEE
  • Justin Cooper's new exhibit is called 'Missed the Boat.'
  • Mark Lee

When you walk into Justin Cooper's studio apartment on the second floor of the Wheeler Arts Community Center in Fountain Square, you just might be fortunate enough to see his recent mixed media paintings hanging on the walls. (If his walls are bare, the work's probably hanging in a gallery somewhere.)

In one of his most recent series of paintings you see a raccoon, with a gold halo around his head, being carried by an ocean-blue wave rimmed with white foam. The wave looks like it could have been painted by Katsushika Hokusai, the great 18th and 19th century Japanese printmaker and painter.

But Hokusai is just one of the influences that Cooper incorporates into the work you'll be able to see on his show Missed the Boat at the Primary Gallery, opening on Friday, Oct. 7.

You can also see the influence of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of icon painting — in the raccoon's halo, for example. Another big influence is a classic of children's literature, Aesop's Fables.

"That's part of the show, the way that [Aesop] used certain animals, and that creates its own back story. So you think that a fox is sly," says Cooper. "You see the raccoon and you know that he's nocturnal and that he lives in a tree."

One thing that's hard to miss in Cooper's studio, lying on his coffee table, is the current edition of National Geographic. And if you read through any recent edition of this magazine, you can't avoid the current editorial preoccupation with numerous, escalating environmental crises.

"There's what we call displacement from humans," Cooper says about his concern for animals that forms a sort of halo, as it were, around his work.

And in Cooper's painting a foreboding of a coming environmental catastrophe of biblical proportions is right there on the surface — in the depictions of animals being swept away by waves. It's also there in the title of his show, Missed the Boat.

What boat did these animals miss, you might think, Noah's Ark?

The significance of the haloes

Perhaps the most widely known Aesop's Fable is the one about the tortoise and the hare. This tale is referenced in an untitled Cooper painting on canvas, where you see a hare riding a tortoise's back as both are being carried off by a wave.

If we've truly entered a new age of environmental calamity, does the moral of the fable — that slow and steady wins the race — have a new sort of significance? Or will such fables be swept away by the storms of a swelling ocean along with the animals?

Whatever the answer, the fact that the tortoise and the hare — both wearing haloes — are riding a wave together towards an unknown destination seems touching and sad.

"The haloes," says Cooper, "could mean a couple of different things... Enlightenment or maybe the animals aren't around anymore so... angels."

A little about technique

Cooper uses metallic leaf to make the haloes. He paints in layers; first in acrylic, then in oil, on wet-sanded canvas — or sanded wood — surfaces.("I'm a big fan of thin layering," he says.) In terms of color choice, many of these paintings have limited palettes; aqua-blues, whites, and pale browns color the stylized backgrounds to his naturalistic depictions of animals.

He gets a glossy effect — that might make you think of stained glass windows — by mixing oil paint with linseed oil on his canvases and by sealing his woodblock paintings with a polyurethane coat.

Cooper, who graduated Chatard High School in 1993, credits his Catholic background with exposing him to the tradition of Christian art. (Despite a semester or two at Herron, Cooper is essentially self-taught.) And although Cooper grew up Catholic, you're more likely to find him spinning records in a nightclub or painting with fellow artist Mike Graves than going to church.

Collaboration with Mike Graves

You may have seen Music the Way We See It, a collaborative painting show between Cooper and Graves at the Harrison Center for the Arts' Gallery 2 back in December, 2010. In this show, Cooper painted the portraits of figures such as LL Cool Jay and Ennio Morricone on backgrounds created by Graves.

For the Morricone portrait entitled "An Ennio Morricone Western," the backdrop was newspaper in Arabic text — a reminder, perhaps, that the backdrops for many of the westerns that Morricone composed for were closer to the Sahara Desert than to the American West. Graves calls such paintings "cultural mash-ups."

"He's a big music scene guy," Cooper says of Graves, who works as a professional deejay and music producer as well as a visual artist.

Cooper's something of a music guy himself. In his studio, you'll find two turntables adjacent to the kitchen and an album cover by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones hanging on the wall.

He likes to listen to Jamaican reggae and ska while painting.He's restless when composing his work, switching from location to location in his studio apartment. In this high-ceilinged studio — where the only windows are above — it seems possible to lose all track of time.

What's next

After this show at Primary Gallery, don't expect any more work picturing animals being swept away by waves — at least for a while.

But there is a hint in his studio about the collaborative direction that his work is headed in — a collaboration with Mike Graves. In a new, as-yet-incomplete painting standing on an easel, you see a surrealistic hybrid between the train paintings that Graves has been working on recently and Cooper's wave paintings — with the additional element of hopping kangaroos. (The title for this work is "Train Hopping.")

The term "cultural mash ups" seems also to apply here, but it's a term that seems to apply to Cooper's solo work as well. And, for that matter, it could probably apply to any art that creates something new with what's being borrowed — from whatever source.

In Cooper's case, he wants to leave some room for interpretation in his art.

"And I try not to guide people too far," says Cooper. "Just because it's nice if you can invest a little time in something that's yours and not mine."

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