Despite enduring canards to the contrary, the early champions of American Modernism were resolutely in favor of the depiction of human subjects. “The morality and the communication inherent in the nature of art is that it makes one aware of the connectedness between people and between things,” wrote Fairfield Porter.1 Six years later, Clement Greenberg emphasized that “the quality of a work of art inheres in its ‘content,’ and vice versa."2 The art of Ashley Norwood Cooper returns to a prelapsarian modernism in which form could be dealt with as such without ill-founded anxieties that doing so opposes content.
Her paintings are sometimes aggressively Cubist. They bear the distinct look of having been conceived and resolved abstractly. Nevertheless you can regard them with the same inquisitiveness that you might bring to a genre picture by Jan Steen. How do people dress their children? What do they serve at lunch? How do they spend their leisure? Consider how little contemporary painting exists in which this is possible.
One work in this exhibition answers all three of the above questions. In it a cheery, polka-dotted tablecloth covers a table placed outdoors. It sports a plate of deviled eggs, a serving dish loaded with macaroni and cheese, and a pan of enticing pink cake. A boy in a striped T-shirt stares at the macaroni raptly. Another, seen through the blue glass of the dish, marvels at the slice of cake headed towards him, borne on a spatula wielded by fingers adorned with nail polish that matches the dessert. (That would be the hand of Mom, presumably, recalling the leftward-pointing hand of God that commands Adam into being on the Sistine Ceiling.)
Deviled Eggs and Pink Cake (2017) is painted with profound knowledge of materials, with particular focus on varying their volumes. The icing is literally frosted and literally sprinkled with oils charged up with cold wax medium. It sits atop cake into which striations have been gouged with a brush handle all the way down to the supporting panel. Here and there lines have been carved back into the paint with a pencil. The diverse treatment highlights the best of each, coupling frenetic scrawl with considered aggregation.
I invoked Steen because Norwood Cooper’s subject descends from his. Upstate New York, where she resides, was settled by Dutch colonists and it persisted for centuries in a cradle of bourgeois mores. Recent times have been harrowing for its denizens outside of the academic enclaves. On one hand, their president engages in brinkmanship with their livelihoods, spouting brash claims as they struggle with poverty and addiction. On the other hand, politically speaking, merely to identify bourgeois culture as a net good is to invite ridicule and retaliation.
This introduces additional tension into scenes that are already far from idyllic. Children look distractedly into their devices. The housepets are clearly insane. Lovers embrace with a mixture of hunger and torpor. As Norwood Cooper’s project migrates from autobiography to fiction, the pictures are becoming more anxious. The orthodonture on the girl about to bite into The Green Apple (2018) recalls a strand of concertina wire, wrapped around teeth spaced apart like the bars of a prison. The bathroom mirror in Dental Hygiene (2018) transforms a man into a toothpaste-spitting, purple goon. His bosomy companion is a glum wraith behind him.
Yet these same settings are the source of as much contentment and tenderness as can be had in the world. A teal-skinned blonde and her matching cat lie peacefully together in Green Girl (2018). A child in pink socks clutches a book and sits in a rocking chair, ignoring the cats that want to rush through the window to kill the birds in the snow outside in Cats and Crows (2017).
From painting to painting, the illumination veers from sunlight to screenlight, the colors from natural and warm to arbitrary and acidic, the tone from despairing to hopeful. Working her paint with formal mastery and psychological depth, Norwood Cooper depicts a complicated world rendered all the more poetic by its familiarity.
1. Fairfield Porter, “Communication and Moral Commitment,” collected in Art In Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975, MFA Publications, 1979, Rackstraw Downes, ed., p.143. Originally appeared in The Nation, March 18, 1961. Interestingly, he was prefacing a review of the paintings of Jack Tworkov.
2. Clement Greenberg, “Complaints of an Art Critic,” collected in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, 1993, John O’Brian, ed, p. 290. Originally appeared in Artforum, October 1967.