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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Portals and awakenings

Talking to Afghanistan, oil, 2013
The portals of Ashley Norwood Cooper

If you're in the Otsego area of New York and have an interest in the region, the arts, or visual narrative, please come to an opening honoring Ashley Norwood Cooper at the Wilbur Mansion this Friday, 5-8 p.m. This Community Arts Network of Oneonta event hails the start of a solo show that features paintings from Ashley's new deployment series.

An interesting departure from Ashley's prior handling of paint, the mode of the paintings implicitly contrasts the smoothness of our world of screens and flattened-out images with a dramatic, built-up surface.  These narrative pieces make ordinaryAmerican life strange--they are full of little portals (via held iPads and iPhones) to the other side of the world, and are themselves windows onto the daily duties and longings from the daily life of a mother and wife in middle-class America.

detail from Washing Dishes, oil, 2014
This one also involves portals and seeing across space--
see the figure (one of two) in the window across the way.
Also, the mother becomes an image reflected on the
surface of the kitchen window--rather like the iPad/iPod
portal surfaces in other paintings.
Made during Shelby Cooper's deployment to Afghanistan, the paintings suggest the simultaneous closeness and distance that afflicts all of us in an electronic landscape, but which is a particular, sometimes painful part of the life of a family with a soldier on the other side of the world. Painter and mother of three, Ashley Norwood Cooper has turned the difficult time of separation into art. Notice that these subjects--narrative images of the military, and in particular the military family at home--are simply not a part of the accepted vocabulary of American painting in our time. I'd love to see the paintings end up as a collection in some often-visited setting because they speak strongly of and to the world of soldiers and their families, and also
Coming Home, oil, 2013
because they are the work of a painter who is once again re-making the way she sees and apprehends our world through paint.

If you're in the area, please come!

* * *

A recommendation from Ashley--

Here's an essay Ashley suggested to me this morning, relating to many things we both find of interest. Jordan Wolfson discusses a lot of issues that our little IAM satellite group has talked about: the lack of "a stable purpose" of art in our era; the lack of correlation between achievement and regard when the artist's place is often established by how well he or she can interact with market forces; "secularization and fragmentation" as leading to a landscape where it's hard to achieve a place. Wolfson grapples with the question of how the arts function in our time, their "use and utility." He examines art's effort to awaken us--to take "raw material and somehow charge it with presence," "consciousness becoming aware of itself." Here are a few clips of note:
On the one hand, a painting is a flat two-dimensional object, with its surface texture and color shapes. On the other hand, a painting offers the possibility of a three-dimensional experience, the illusion of moving into space and discovering form. Stability and instability. Fact and imagination. Actual and fictive. It is this twin role, and its simultaneity, that gives painting such power. Real and unreal. Real and more real. Painting, through the coexistence of two seemingly opposite experiences, interwoven into an actual unity, may provide the receptive adult the possibility of moving from an experience of fragmentation into an experience of wholeness and integration, not only within oneself but with the world at large.

Clement Greenberg got painting’s essence exactly wrong. It isn’t the stability of painting’s flatness—its “ineluctable flatness”; it is the inextricable unity of painting’s impossible flatness/fullness, stability/instability, stillness/movement. This is life.

Painting does have a necessary and ancient function; it isn’t to depict the world—it is to weave the world; or rather, it is to reveal and make visible the actual weave of the world, the weave that already exists.

I believe that what I am trying to describe here is actually an ancient way of looking at painting. Images carry power. It is only with the rise and development of our secular culture with its accompanying market economy that painting has found itself delegated to a luxury commodity that is devoid of any real use and value in our society beyond sophisticated decoration, investment and chic. This is not particularly the plight of painting—so much in our culture has been radically reduced to a flattened materialist, financial definition—the logical endpoint in the Story of Separation. But the act of painting carries much greater power than that. And we need to re-describe this activity, re-imagine it, in order to sharpen its power and focus; in order for painting to more fully participate and take its place in our global regeneration.
Read the whole thing here.

Wolfson is not alone in thinking about dead ends and regeneration, not just in painting but across the arts; it's something that a lot of us have been discussing. For one example, it's part of why Makoto Fujimura founded International Arts Movement "to promote conversation and meditations on culture, art, and humanity," and then Fujimura Institute, which describes itself as "defying fractured, fragmented modern perspectives, the Fujimura Institute encourages artists and thinkers to collaborate, cooperate and inspire their audiences to piece together a whole view of the world." It's why so many artists are turning away from what makes for worldly success in a blockbuster world and reaching back to old skills and tools in order to rethink and re-make an art for today.


  1. Marly,
    What an amazingly thoughtful essay. It gives us the basis for the new discussion he believes painters ought to have, but you're right. It's not just about painters but about all the arts, and beyond. Any human endeavor involving beauty and moral values needs to retell its own story, find a new context for itself.
    It's clear this is not going to happen on its own. To wait passively is to become entirely irrelevant. That is already happening.
    I for one will not just roll over and give in.

    1. It is always interesting to see that other people in the arts are thinking about the very same issues that bother us, and coming to strong conclusions.

  2. I am intrigued! An active-duty military man in Afghanistan finds time, energy, and motivation to persist and flourish as an artist. (During my 25 years in the Navy, I do not think I had any creative energy -- although I did take a creative writing course at Berkeley when I was stationed in SFRAN -- so I am envious of the artist-soldier.) I wish I were in NY so that I could see the work. But, alas, I languish on the Redneck Riviera, another artistic desert.

    1. Oops, does it come off that way? It's the mother at home who is the painter. I'll have to see if I need to tweak something!

  3. I think I read it wrong. Sorry.

    1. I added another line to make sure it was clear... Latest communication from Ashley, which I thought funny: "I got the chickens out of the park. And no, Shelby did not do the paintings but two unisex names in a marriage is too many." Everything is more amusing with chickens, but the unisex names might explain your original misreading!

  4. There was no lack of clarity. I simply cannot read.

    1. I doubt that! At any rate, I am glad you do...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.