Memory is a funny thing… what is captured, what is lost; how seemingly insignificant details become paramount while grander moments all but disappear. Many others have tackled the subject of memory with a far more eloquent understanding than I could ever hope to – take Proust and his madeleine or Dali and his clocks – and Douglas Cooper’s works on paper make him an insightful participant in this dialogue.
Upon entering Concept Gallery and climbing the austere stairs to the more traditional exhibit space, you are presented with the first of more than a dozen pieces – large scale, architecturally tinted charcoal drawings. The details of various buildings are impeccable, considering their obviously hand-drawn nature, but as you explore any given piece, you start to feel the buildings move and dance, the multiple points of perspective bending walls and curving streets. And that is exactly what you do as the viewer – explore. Each drawing is made up of a view of some of Pittsburgh’s well-known neighborhoods – Oakland, Greenfield, Polish Hill – and once you recognize a building or landmark familiar to you, you begin to walk down the street, meandering this way and that through the drawing, feeling completely at ease while simultaneously knowing the representation is not quite… accurate.
In “Atwood and Bates”, you may be clued into your familiarity by the title alone. Who hasn’t traveled those streets through the city’s collegiate center? In the foreground is Mad Mex, but beside it, instead of a car, passes a trolley, and in the background sits Forbes Field, which was demolished in 1971. As you explore and absorb details of each drawing, you begin to piece together that Cooper’s work is based in his memory, and not in chronology or topography. Now a well-known muralist and Andrew Mellon Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, his youth spent in Oakland plays an important role in determining and influencing what buildings and sites are included in his work.
One of Pittsburgh’s oldest and largest churches in the heart of Polish Hill, is both the focus and namesake of his “Immaculate Heart of Mary”, another drawing that reveals Cooper’s strong attention to architectural detail, while also conveying an other-worldly, dreamlike quality to the experience of viewing and recognizing the neighborhood. The vertical orientation, somewhat uncommon in the field of landscapes, emphasizes the city’s hills and allows Cooper to create a vast background, full of iconic Pittsburgh elements.
Part of Cooper’s process is to create etudes: smaller, preparatory sketches. These multiple sheets of plain, white paper pinned together lets the viewer in on this process, with a wide array of these sketches on display. The gallery treats them as stand-alone art objects, and truly, they hold up on their own next to his completed works. The gestural quality is a thing of beauty in and of itself, exposing a confidence in line and composition. The smudges and fingerprints left in the white space are an added, insightful bonus.
“The Eye’s Journey”, Cooper’s sixth solo exhibition at Concept Gallery, displays his most recent work, created in 2012. I am not sure which speaks more highly of what a disciplined, driven, and prolific artist he is – that he has had six shows at this gallery alone, or that the entire body of work on display was created within the timeframe of a single year. Regardless, it is well worth your time to seek it out, a journey worthy of taking.
“The Eye’s Journey” is on view at Concept Art Gallery – 1031 South Braddock Avenue – through March 3rd.