Thursday, April 21, 2011

MARLY YOUMANS: ART REVIEW: ‘Snared In The Moment When Things Go Awry...’

"HOMEBODIES,” by Cooperstown’s Ashley Norwood Cooper, on display through Saturday, May 14, at the Earlville Opera House.

The Freeman’s Journal
Cooperstown’s Ashley Norwood Cooper touches up a painting in her Lake Street attic studio.

Cooperstown artist Ashley Norwood Cooper has a strong solo show of 18  casein-on-board paintings, “Homebodies,” at the East Gallery of the Earlville Opera House. These pictures are part of the resurgence of narrative, representation and pictorial beauty in painting.  They are resonant with half-told stories and rich with mystery.
They demonstrate a fascinating relationship to what in the past has been considered a traditional, often-scorned woman’s subject, domestic life.  Her statements about her work may sound modest: “I try to paint life in a small town as thoroughly and honestly as I can. We live with our families, protected from the elements in houses built on the bones of the past.” She finds that “mundane details are fraught with mystery and meaning.”
But the paintings have something powerful and not at all modest to say. Houses have been cut away so that we see simultaneously the ordinary and the terrible intrusions created by nature, accident and danger.  These are not paintings removed from real life, located in some distant arena of action. They are the places where we live and die, where transformation is continually happening. Their middle-class interiors remind me of a poem by Mary Jo Salter in which “hidden in the house a fine / crack – nothing spectacular, / only a leak somewhere – is slowly / widening to claim each of us.”
The entire world functions as a kind of doll’s house, where we are allowed to see into the earth or through private walls.  The bones of a bear seem to stir, longing to attack a heavy-racked deer that lowers its head to drink from a child’s wading pool in the dream-like “Night Secrets.” Not knowing that mystery is only a few walls away, a man and woman embrace inside the house. Here and elsewhere bones of the past remind us of the scope of time, that it is large and that our lives in the shelter of homes are small.
In “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board,” my favorite of the paintings, children play an occult game down in the basement, lifting a girl into the air with only two fingers from each hand. Weird light spills onto her face; her mouth is open, and she is in the grip of something ecstatic. What have these children conjured? The gold and green gleams shed from a streetlight through a basement window and the face of the half-thrilled, half-horrified child are uncanny. 
That uncanniness is contagious.  It infects the entire house as well as the yard and street glimpsed outside, where bats jitter and swarm in the twilight.  A figure leaving a car seems strangely vulnerable to the open air.  Upstairs, reflected eerily in a big-screen TV, a naked man stoops, seeking to get into bed with his wife, who has stiffly ensconced herself in the very center of the bed, her body as pale and cold as the sheets. Outside, a skeleton under the ground gropes upward, as if awakened by the séance game and wishing to snatch at life.
The figures in “The Bear,” Ashley Cooper’s most recent work on exhibit at Earlville, show signs of wanting to escape the dimensions of her current paintings. They have grown large and suggest that the artist is looking for bigger rooms to inhabit. She is looking for generous studio space where she can work on a larger canvas and has ideas about a new project. It will be interesting to watch where she goes from here.
In the cut-away interior of “The Bear,” a family is frozen at the moment when a bear knocks over the aluminum garbage can outside – awakened, caught up, and alarmed. Picasso once said that we see a painting better when it’s not hung tidily on a nail but is hung crookedly. These paintings are crooked in just such a way: their human occupants are snared in the moment when things go awry. Life is illuminated by strangeness and is suddenly more real and intense than it was a moment before.
Ashley Norwood Cooper is an artist with a vocation, one that we locals ought to support with our attention and time and, yes, money. From now through May 14, pay a visit to her work at the Earlville Opera House, a model for arts programs in our area.

Ashley Norwood Cooper’s latest work, “The Bear,” is among 18 paintings displayed at the Earlville Opera House through May 14.

Marly Youmans’ eighth book is just out – a collection of poetry, “The Throne of Psyche” (Mercer University Press, April 2011.)

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