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.)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
boat did these animals miss, you might think, Noah's Ark?
significance of the haloes
the most widely known Aesop's Fable is the one about the tortoise and the hare.
being carried off by a wave.
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?
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.
haloes," says Cooper, "could mean a couple of different things... Enlightenment
or maybe the animals aren't around anymore so... angels."
little about technique
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.
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.
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.
with Mike Graves
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.
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
a big music scene guy," Cooper says of Graves, who works as a professional
deejay and music producer as well as a visual artist.
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.
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.
this show at Primary Gallery, don't expect any more work picturing animals
being swept away by waves — at least for a while.
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.")
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.
Cooper's case, he wants to leave some room for interpretation in his art.
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."