In the photography courses that Dan Cooper teaches at the Indianapolis Art Center, there comes a point early on when he gives a directive to his students. He tells them to go find a place to photograph anywhere on the center's campus. Meanwhile, he stays put with his camera, and while they run off, he takes a photograph.
"You can find everything that you need from where you are right now," he tells them upon their return.
You'll find a similar sensibility in the rest of Cooper's work, on display in a show, Seasons, at Gallery 924, opening Friday. Cooper's paintings, which combine an interest in the local landscape with his far-ranging speculations on the nature of reality, will be the main event in the show. But examples of his work in video and photography will be also be on display. In addition, Cooper has recruited two collaborators to provide both a literary and a musical accompaniment.
Cooper, a father of two grown boys, lives with his wife, Mary, on the northeast side. He has coached almost 40 youth sports teams, an interest that is reflected in a number of his paintings.
In the acrylic on canvas painting "Seasons," you see the subject, from behind, sitting beside a table with a baseball on it. The man, a dead ringer for Cooper himself, is looking out a window at a snowy winter landscape with a grove of barren trees blocking the horizon. Because the subject's gaze is focused in that direction, your gaze is also. So, in essence, the background of the painting becomes the foreground. (You also see this effect in many of the works by 19th century German romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, one of Cooper's favorite painters.)
But when you return your gaze to the interior of the room in which the man sits, you'll see some things that do not seem to jibe with day-to-day reality, like grass growing on the floor, or the strangely atmospheric gray wall that separates inside from the outside. On this wall, which may not be a wall at all, you see the image of a painting of a vase of flowers by Cooper's grandmother.
"My grandmother was famous for painting on china," says Cooper. "My goal was to be able to paint in more detail than she did. I grew up being around this stuff. She had a major impact on me. She died just a few days short of being 100... . When I finally got to being able to detail better than she could, I had to learn not to do it because it takes so darned long."
Cooper, born in Greensburg, Ind., in 1952, was interested in art almost as far back as he can recall.
"I remember when I was four years old, that I had a coloring book, a western cowboy coloring book. And I discovered that I could make a better brown just using complementary colors than I could with the brown crayon."
He attended Arlington High School in the sixties, where he benefitted from the wealth of talent in the school's art department. He attended Indiana University on a full Evans scholarship.
In addition to being a fine painter, Cooper is proficient in many forms of visual media. He credits a late sixties TV show hosted by Walter Cronkite, The 21st Century, which ran several segments on computer art - an emerging field at the time - for inspiring him to create art with computers.
"When Mary and I decided to start a family, I jumped into graphic design as a way to have control over my own time and be an involved dad," says Cooper. "I continued to paint and explore my artistic vision but dropped out of the local arts scene to isolate myself creatively."
You can see a very deliberate design process when it comes to the composition of his work. Although there are often abstract expressionist elements in his paintings - particularly in the skies - nothing is really left to chance. He doesn't let his canvas, or the time of day, or his mood at the time dictate how his particular painting will come out.
"I create paintings in my head before I start," he said. "I have to understand before I can do it."
A very deliberate symbolism often informs his work. In an ominous painting called "Seven Billion" - a title referring to the number of people currently on Earth - you see fires sweeping across a vast grassy plain. In "Going Somewhere Else," you see a young man, with backpack, against a wide landscape; his gaze is on the same level as the elevated highway in the far distance. Perhaps the somewhere else of the painting is simply somewhere else. Perhaps it is somewhere beyond the veil of earthly reality.
Both of these paintings have wide horizons, but more typical of the work in his Gallery 924 show is "Winter/Spring," which shows a man in a forest contemplating the horizon just beyond him, his path having taken him through a forest blooming with green into a patch of snow where you can see his footprints.
And in the painting "is," has no horizon at all. Surrounding the subject of the painting - a young boy enjoying himself on a swing - is an eerie green mist. This four-year-old, of course, isn't going to be concerned with the metaphysical questions that Cooper seems to be posing in his work. But whether his subjects are approaching the edge of their known reality, or contemplating their own mortality, or just enjoying themselves, they usually do so against the backdrop of the Indiana landscape.
The Indiana landscape may be flat, Cooper seems to be saying, but you don't need a spectacular landscape in order to contemplate the portals to other worlds surrounding you, or the afterlife beyond you. Accordingly Cooper might be inspired to paint things other artists might take for granted, such as a patch of scraggly trees or a highway intersection. "Any intersection can be a portal because a portal transports you from one place to another," he says.