“Swarm,” a solo museum exhibition of the work of Ashley Norwood Cooper, opened at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, at the start of April. Marking the occasion was one of the more interesting of such events I’ve witnessed: a double presentation by the artist and A. E. Stallings, a poet whose work has graced this publication. Stallings and Norwood Cooper were college roommates in the thick of the veritable renaissance that took place in Athens, Georgia, in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.
That scene produced, most famously, the rock bands R.E.M. and the B-52s. Many Athens musicians and much of their audiences were connected in one way or another to the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art (R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe was an art major there). Stallings and Norwood Cooper, both classics majors at the university, recalled late-running, boozy parties in which determined contemplation was lavished alternately upon the lyrics of R.E.M. and Hesiod. They reflected that at the time they were simply unaware of what constituted frivolous or serious creative activity or how genres were separated, but the lack of awareness fostered a kind of liberation that made the scene possible. Just as the musical developments were attached to the art school, one of the best artists was in the classics department. Norwood Cooper’s powerful art on view at the Fenimore, Stallings’s definitive translation of Lucretius and her own extraordinary oeuvre, and the B-52’s magnificent single “Channel Z” ought to be viewed as flowing from a common tributary.
At the Fenimore, Stallings read from her latest collection of poems, This Afterlife, the cover of which sports a detail of Norwood Cooper’s Picnic at Sunset, an oil-on-linen work from 2020. Picnic is a gyrating tribute to one of her children, a dauntless tree-climber who nevertheless harbored, for some reason, a fear of butterflies. Norwood Cooper was moved to try to depict marauding butterflies, which she painted as colorfully dotted, airborne goblins. A mother reaches to a boy as he flees up a bough. Demonic silhouettes of rabbits prance in the tentacular grass. A father in the foreground, with a head like a Roman bust, looks indifferently into a phone, his headphones shielding him from the surrounding brouhaha.
The connection to Stallings is indirect, but the image of motherhood as a hopeless battle against nature’s—and therefore youth’s—terrifying capacity for surprise recurs in the poet’s work as well. Stallings called their common subject the “sphere of the mytho-domestic.” From “Dyeing the Easter Eggs”:
I am the children’s blonde American mother,
Who thinks that Easter eggs should be pastel—
But they have icon eyes, and they are Greek.
And eggs should be, they’ve learned at school this week,
The children are Greek because Stallings moved to the original Athens in 1999. I, as a functionally monolingual scribbler who went to art school and is no scholar of poetry, write about Stallings in fear that I’m going to miss something that would be obvious if I had had a proper literary education. But even I can appreciate the invocation of the spilled blood of the risen King and the begrudged obedience of the children preserved in the alliteration of the poem’s conclusion:
The kids’ palms are incarnadine and violet.
A mess! Go wash your hands! They wash their hands,
Punctilious as Pontius Pilate.
Stallings’s insistence on poetic rhyme, which she characterized as a mechanism by which words call out to one another as opposed to a stricture, could be likened to Norwood Cooper’s insistence on the figurative narrative. I wonder if both could be likened further to R.E.M.’s commitment to the rock idiom. Even if they couldn’t articulate it, by the 1980s it was apparent to neophyte creators that the convention-exploding aspect of Modernism needed to be rethought. At that point it made sense to study Virgil, develop craft, and look around the room for inspiration. From R.E.M.’s “Gardening at Night”:
I see your money on the floor
I felt the pocket change though all
The feelings that broke through that door
Thus was born what might be a Gen-X aesthetic, which held that the stuff of art was near at hand and could be employed if you weren’t pretentious about it and had some idea about what you were doing technically.
That returns us to Norwood Cooper. She free-associates her pictures into existence, starting with content-free abstractions. A vocabulary of symbols—bees, macaroni, headphones, rabbits—pushes itself into the artist’s consciousness in the process. She slathers and then scrapes and scratches the oil paint. Figures, most of them implicit families, comport themselves with medieval discomfort, burdened with bodies. That the colors are typical of an Impressionist group portrait in the landscape only adds to the weirdness.
The bees preponderate. “I, too, am caught in the swarm,” Norwood Cooper writes in the statement accompanying the exhibition. “I have had to learn to let go of trying to understand things—my children, my country, even my own art. The world around me is swarming and my interior world is abuzz, also. I am just another bee.” She goes on to cite the manifestation of bees in the verse of Sylvia Plath and Virgil.
Virgil’s bees are, among other things, a metaphor for the Roman Civil War. Plath sensed in the dying queen a reflection of something more private, a symbol of both her creative power and her mortality.
Blackberry Pickers Sharing (2022) depicts a cranky woman with cat-eye glasses dropping fruit into the palm of a child with manic, mis-aimed eyes and an askew cartoon mouth. Another ominous black butterfly haunts the lower-left corner. Berries and bees speckle the air. Norwood hasn’t painted the bees with any menace—if anything they look cute—but some deep instinct sees this many of them crowded into a rectangle and prompts the viewer to run. Norwood Cooper’s discomfort about parenting in contemporary America is palpable, even without our knowing the connection of the bees, in her mind, to her person and the empire.
In Summer Nap (Danae) (2021), a woman sleeps in a twisting hammock, her mouth open as if snoring loud enough to hear down the street. One worries that a bee from the swarm of dozens will fly into it. The bees are the coins that rain out of the cascade of light, more tart-lemon than gold, which dissolves into literal turpentine and drips down the painting. An orange cat holds a freshly murdered mouse, to the irritated envy of his black-furred companion. Climbing a tree that supports the hammock is a centipede the size of the woman’s head, which is painted in dusky mauve portending death.
In Throne of the Dead Queen (2023) the bees have gained a third dimension and invaded a room-filling installation. The centerpiece is a chair over which hang large headphones, both sculpted in layers of dripped wax. Headphones, for Norwood Cooper, are a supernal crown. In addition to the man in Picnic, they adorn the red head of Kore with Headphones and Pomegranate (2022), painted for a reissue of Stallings’s 1999 collection Archaic Smile. They also dignify the head of an undignified self-portrait, in which the artist imagines herself suddenly dead in a field, with no witnesses save the bereaved family dog. Evidently a podcast plays on in her vacated ears; perhaps the artist’s soul plays on as well, somewhere.
Hardly any visual art made anywhere is so vulnerable and heartfelt, or so masterly harmonizes technical skill with visceral rawness. Almost none of it so deftly threads the Gen-X needle of self-revelation without self-importance. Ashley Norwood Cooper’s paintings are on the level of the best art that her generation has accomplished in any medium.