by Joe Frost
Saturday 10 September 2022
at Annandale Galleries 110 Trafalgar St Annandale
Launched by Dr Michael Hill - Head of Art History National Art School
ON LOCATION, the Art of Charles Cooper, written by Joseph Frost
Opening speech by Dr Michael Hill on 10 September 2022
A long time ago I was living with my friend Justin in a one-story terrace in Camden Street Newtown. There was no fridge or indoor toilet but on the walls were two paintings, one by Justin's sister Georgina, and another by her boyfriend, Charles Cooper. It was a red outline man with hands on hip standing against an indigenous backdrop. A western stop sign against a cave. I later discovered that the painting was part of a pioneering search for something deeper. Charles saw Australia only in patches, he couldn't see it full. He needed another way of seeing. One night George and Charlie came to dinner and as we sat down on milk crates to eat, Charles noticed a book on the shelf, The Art of the Nineteenth Century by Robert Rosenblum. So he began talking to me about art. Charles is a guy who loves to talk about art.
Six years later I was teaching Renaissance art at COFA and came across an essay of such brilliance that I assumed it to be plagiarism. The research was good, the argument sound, and the writing clear, but what was amazing about the text was its critical maturity, as if the author already knew about the world. So likely an older student, I thought, for then as now mature aged students went to art school. Turns out that the writer was a dark-haired teenager called Joe Frost. I did not have much experience as a teacher so perhaps such outliers were common. There're not.
Anyway, the 1990s came and went and my doctoral study of the Papal Court saw me recruited to the newly formed Art History and Theory department at the National Art School. Enter Charles Cooper, looking much the same as 15 years earlier, still pursuing conversation with anyone willing to follow the path. By now he was working on roads, pressed under our feet and flattened by cars. It was a good subject for someone interested in the picture plane, as Charlie was, but what really took his fancy were the allegorical dimension of roadways. They are fragments of maps, lines of circulation, patterns of social construction. Nothing to do with trends and style, just ideas. Where would the road take him? Weirdly enough, to Rome in 2012, where he found cobblestone paving to be similar to Romanesco broccoli - roads, Charlie suggests, bear the finger prints of natural order as well! I joined Charles for a time in Rome, and one of the highlights of my learning life was when he told me at an exhibition near the Capitoline that Mondrian finished his paintings with a lightly umbered clear glaze, thereby modelling the surface.
Back in Sydney and decade earlier, the brilliant student I'd taught at COFA (arrived as a drawing lecturer at our school. By then, Joe had seemingly become a landscapist. What he really painted were the patterns and movement occurring in the humdrum of social interaction. Like Charles, I hear you think I'm going to say. But the things that Charlie paints have an almost hallucinated clarity. They are as present as it is possible to be. Not so Joe. He filters what he records through recollection. They say that getting old is a process of confusing memory and imagination. Did it happen to me or did I make it up? Ageing is a space of longing, a world of apparitions and not seeing things face to face. Joe has been old all his life. Charles on the other hand is forever young, curiously following threads of meaning to discover more new ideas, more places in which to play.
This book is about Charles Cooper, but it is also a creation of Joe Frost. He has the wisdom to assess his senior yet juvenescent colleague. It brings together distant generations in a strange chiasmus, a relationship hatched over time within the stone microcosm of the National Art School. The book gives me some closure too, as its makers are mirrors of my own younger and older self. It thus my singular honour to launch On Location, the Art of Charles Cooper, written by Joseph Frost.
Foreword John McDonald
In a late essay on landscape painting, Aldous Huxley exclaims: “What a pity that Seurat never had the chance of working in the desert! More effectively than any other painter, he knew how to render on canvas the given fact and the intrinsic meaning of emptiness.”
One may pause over the enigmatic phrase, “the intrinsic meaning of emptiness,” but thrill to the thought of Seurat turning his attention from the Grande Jatte to the Sahara, from a hive of urban, bourgeois leisure to the wilderness.
Charles Cooper is a master of such aesthetic surprises. He has taken the urban environment – the roads and highways, the packed inner suburbs – and reimagined them in terms of the signs and symbols we associate with tribal communities. A zebra crossing or an intersection seen from above, laid flat on the wall, become patterns full of mystic power. Look more closely, and there is Seurat – a mass of tiny dots, investing each part of the picture with a kind of squirming, molecular energy.
Seurat and Cooper have much in common. They share the same infinite patience with composition and paint application; the same fascination with optics and surfaces. Both are utterly singular artists compelled to experiment.
It’s illuminating to read Joe Frost’s description of Cooper’s 40-year career and trace the evolution of his work. While the artist’s themes and ideas have remained consistent, the formal innovations have never ceased. One is struck immediately by the abstract qualities of Cooper’s shaped canvases and his dynamic use of perspective, but on closer inspection these works remain tethered to the asphalt and concrete of the city. They are simultaneously up in the air and down-to-earth; an impossible hybrid of science fiction and gritty realism. The artist’s fastidious technique ensures that no surface appears flat or static.
Perhaps “the intrinsic meaning of emptiness” is that an apparent void is always an invitation to the viewer to supply the content. Reduce the subject matter to simple, abstract shapes and signs, and the interpretative options are not diminished but expanded. Within those boundaries Cooper sets for himself, he works with extraordinary freedom. We understand what Frost means when he says that within these paintings, “identities and categories cease to hold.” One hopes this book will bring new admirers to a impressive body of work that defies definition.
Photographs © by John McRae