Ethereal worlds 


Real and imagined

Justin Cooper
Galerie Penumbra
through Sept. 30

Justin Cooper’s early paintings — that is, those in the public eye shortly after he graduated from Herron School of Art — were cubist deconstructions of figures; tightly organized compositions that, while cubist in feel, did not feel spontaneous. Now, several years later, Cooper’s paintings are equally controlled, perhaps even more so; and yet he’s developed a focus spun from this early trajectory that has departed from any cubist tendencies and speaks to an openness suggesting a spontaneity of spirit, if not practice.

Cooper, among the younger set of Indianapolis artists who began to see recognition early — or at least had the persistence to ply his art in a variety of well-visited venues in the city and facilitate a certain presence — is also an Indianapolis artist who stayed. His current solo exhibition, on view at Galerie Penumbra (through Sept. 30), gives ample testimony to his maturity of voice — and that an artist’s voice can evolve without a permanent move.

But there’s a worldly aspect to Cooper’s take on things. In his own words, his artwork is, “Greatly influenced by the ancient and modern art of both the eastern and western worlds.” To this end, Cooper builds symbolic narratives in a sort of meditative space. Tending towards medium and smaller format paintings (with a few exceptions), Cooper’s paintings, as he puts it, are “open to interpretation,” packed with a dense array of imagery framed by glittering gold- and silver-leafed borders of tightly knit squares.

What to make of such deliciously perfected images of owls, bats, bees, lilies, roosters, spiders, rabbits and the like? Even these, richly suggestive, do not stand alone; some surround like a halo the symbolic image of the feminine, a perfectly proportioned female figure, hands open, the divine receptive vehicle. But Cooper throws in smaller, more enigmatic symbols, like spaces on a game of Zen monopoly: we see an Rx symbol, an umbrella, a devil’s pitchfork, the chemical formula for water, the nuclear symbol, a car battery, a pair of dice, a seashell. Profane and sacred, human and divine, and points of grey in between.

These smaller symbols are like the spice that makes ethnic food unique: without them, Cooper’s paintings would be lovely, certainly, but they wouldn’t be nearly as appetizing. There is much to savor here, and much to attempt to figure out if one so chooses. Cooper’s aims are certainly ambitious: “…the symbols and patterns represent areas of art history, cultural and spiritual mythology, mathematics, and science.” But he doesn’t stop here. “The paintings aspire to present an open dialogue on commonalities that we share as inhabitants on this planet.”

No small task — but if Cooper’s paintings do generate some dialogue, so much the better. Certainly they come from a place of recognition. But the devil — and the divine — are in the details: and this is where Cooper’s work really shines.

Zero, paintings by Justin Cooper, is on view through Sept. 30 at Galerie Penumbra, 1043 Virginia Ave., Fountain Square. Call 508-8043 or visit for more information.



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