Catalogue for Art First Contemporary Art, London
Touring exhibition to Wolverhampton, Nottingham and Eastbourne
The Dark Side of the Moon
A naked female acrobat balances on a high wire. Below her is a pool of deep blue water, ahead a hoop of fire. On the ground near the tight rope is a ladder and a brick wall fringed with barbed wire. The young woman literally has the world at her feet. Will she fall into the deep pool of obscurity or dare to jump through that element of transformation – fire – into new possibilities? Perhaps she will decide to climb the ladder or attempt, in a series of futile gestures, to scale the brick wall. Obstacle Coursewas painted in 1982 when Eileen Cooper was still single and is one of the rare works of that period where the central figure is unaccompanied by an other living being. Here the future stretches ahead, a series of infinite choices.
Boys and Tiger, 1991
Marriage and motherhood have provided Eileen Cooper with a fecund range of images. They have also given her a psychodynamic vocabulary in which to explore the social tensions that affect the creative woman/mother, as well as a language to investigate the cultural dialectic between the elemental and the cerebral, the intuitive and the rational, the Dionysian and the Apollonian.
When I first met Eileen in the 80s we were both young women juggling childcare with creative lives. We immediately felt a natural empathy, linked by the fact that we had separately arrived at the use of similar imagery; her within her paintings and me within my poems. It was these tensions between motherhood and those of being a young artist, which were to become integrated, through the appropriation of autobiographical material, into her work. Trained at Goldsmiths and the Royal College her early work was passionate, intuitive and original. It had a poetic quality, concerned as much with emotional and psychic experience as with geometric spatial relationships or form. It was raw, daring and essentially female without being feminine. At art school she felt she had lost her way, so was basically left alone. This was to be her making. By fusing the oppositional nature of career/creator, the destructive binary faced by so many women was overcome. Her early themes were those of pregnancy, birth and motherhood. Rounded stomachs, babies, ships, flowers were all recurring emblems in her flame reds, visceral pinks and oranges, her luscious blues. Her imagery was full of archetypal symbols: the sun as life, the moon as the dark side of the female psyche with its ebbs and flows and cyclical rhythms. Sunflowers, burst into life, there were fish, flowers, and rainbows. This was the work of a young woman. There was something Utopian about all this fecundity. Its strength lay in the fact that her mothers were not sanitised images of a beatified Madonnas, but rather something more ancient and atavistic. These were Earth Mothers, powerful matriarchal goddesses, rather than the gentle nurturer of Christian iconography. This quality of ‘paganising’ her subject mater, so to speak, returns in the work that she has done here at the Dulwich picture gallery. Her flattened forms, with their mask-like faces draw their inspiration from primitivism. From the chunky figures of Gauguin and the African masks that so influenced Picasso. She has never been interested in naturalism and her work draws on influences as diverse as Indian and Persian art and the dreamlike work of Ken Kiff. Clemente and Odilin Redon also come to mind.
Woman bathing in her own tears, 1987
Over the years, with the birth of her second child, Eileen’s images began to take on more of an edge. From the all-embracing fecundity of the new mother there was a tension developing that mirrored more complex family relationships with their Oedipal undertow. Oppositions, perplexities and choices could all be felt in the implied and embryonic violence that some of this work suggests. The colour register also changed, it was less lush and gorgeous. There were more yellows and greens. Her palette became closer to the Brucke Expressionists showing the subliminal influence of painters such as Kirchner or Nolde. A small child lying in the mother’s palm in Gift, 1985, was not only her newborn child, but also the fragile creative self that must be continuously nurtured. This elemental split is graphically underlined in Woman bathing in her own tears, 1987, where the mermaid – a divided form, part fish and part woman – equally needs both air and water to survive. The aqueous image is a powerful one. For water is not only a medium of transformations but also a domain in which one might fatally drown.
Far too often Eileen Coopers work has been misread as decorative and easy, when in fact, the ferocity of a subliminal anger is never far from the surface. The two small children may sit trustingly on the tiger’s back in Boys and Tiger, 1991, but at any moment the animal’s patience, if tried could erupt into savagery.
The division between head and body, reason and intuition is a repeated motif throughout her work and is graphically illustrated by the emergence of a series of twins and doppelgangers. In Sisters, 1992, an image that might also refer to Demeter and Persephone – the divine mother and daughter who were also ‘twin sisters’ – one personality appears to have been parthenogenetically cloned by itself. The female figure is thus both mother to her own daughter and sister to her mother.
This attempt to locate the ego, the ‘real’ self, to maintain a balance between internal and external, between anima and animus is located in a series of images that have taken years, by Eileen Cooper’s own admission, to clarify. The male head, bursting like a seed from a ripe pod Tongue Tied 1997 reiterates the struggle of an exorcised and sublimated ghost ‘maleness’ to emerge from the enveloping prison of femininity. In Woman with Bird the androgynous figure clasps the white bird, eager for freedom, into its arms, whilst its guts – that normally visceral domain – are filled with the invasive image of a cerebral ‘male’ head. The boundaries between the chthonic elemental and ‘female’, and the ‘masculine’ lightness of mind and spirit are again blurred. A more autobiographical reading might suggest that for the artist/mother the internalised presence of growing sons intrudes into her autonomous creative space. The sense of being diminished by these young males, or threatened by their own burgeoning sexuality, which leaves the mother-figure stranded, left behind, is a theme that has echoed through much of her more recent work. Now instead of the maternal rapture in the new born infant, there is parental anxiety at the waning of adult sexuality that is all too graphically about to be usurped and surpassed by the young males incipient virility.
In the 90s Eileen Cooper changed her way of working in an attempt to push out the boundaries of her own technique. Paintings done on the floor became looser and more fluid, the application of the paint less controlled and predictable. It was a way of working that she has continued to use, frequently starting a canvas on the floor before finishing it in the vertical in her strong familiar colours and monumental line.
This residency then was a major departure for an artist who has, as she said to me all those years ago when we first met, always worked from the inside out. What would an artist like her make of this collection of 17th / 18th century masters? She would need to find a new way to approach such a commission. As she worked in the gallery she began to gravitate towards paintings that allowed her to express her natural themes. She seemed drawn to painters of the Mediterranean rather than the Northern School To Guernico from Bolognia and to Pousssin, who though French, worked much of his time in Rome.
Looking at Poussin’s Triumph of David, the three women on the left slowly transmute into the three graces, illustrating how Eileen is interested in the intimate relationships between these women rather than in the history or sociology of the work. Her Woman Taken in Adultery shows the woman not so much as victim but as someone rooted and grounded in her own sense of her self. She may have lowered eyes, but particularly in the charcoal version, her expression is one of holding her own council. She seems not only separate but also more emotionally solid than the other protagonists. While in Making Mud Pies the creator is turned from a patriarchal God to a matriarch. Christ becomes a mother figure. Powerful, creative and elemental. From the mud of the earth she literally creates both actual life and art. In the blue version, the woman hunches behind a bush as if involved in some elemental private ritual. While in the red version, two figures carry what appears to be a dead woman. Is this some of funeral? A dire warning that if we are cut off four our true selves a sort of psychic death occurs? The woman in the foreground ignores the events taking place behind her and continues with her work.
The Babies, 1987
As Eileen returned to the studio the classical clothed figures from the gallery were gradually stripped bare. Tiny elements from the original paintings caught her imagination and became developed into her own hallmark works. The tree in St. Rita of Cascia for example, became pivotal in its relationship with St. Rita, who became slowly devoid of all her Catholic iconography. Here she has become more like a pagan goddess; like a flying yogi, she seems not to be reliant on supernatural powers but her own inner volition and strength. It is this theme of ‘selfhood’, of finding and developing internal strengths that is the hallmark of Cooper’s later work. Without it the creative woman will be torn apart by the warring demands, not only of others, as in Dilemma, where two small children pull her in opposite directions, but by the competing parts of herself: the mother, the creator, the sensualist. There is something of the judgement of Solomon about this painting. But here it is not the baby who is about to be pulled in two, but the mother. In Animal Instincts a branch sprouts from the woman’s backside, expressing both her playful and sensual nature, as if in defiance to all the other more demanding and responsible roles placed on her. Here the woman is shown in her dual nature. Rooted to what is animal in her psyche, yet at the same time her own rational ‘civilised’ self taken by surprise by that more hidden part of her make up. Note the hand to the mouth, the sense of shock passing across the figures face. Her body, here is a dark visceral red, linking her to all that is physical and elemental. In Guardian II and Guardian IV the monolithic female holds a tiny figure in her left hand. But the figure is not that of a child but a miniaturised woman, in fact, she bares the same face as the woman who holds her. Here again we return to the Kleinian notion of the child within. It is this ‘child’, this ‘internal self’ that has to be nurtured in order to have a creative life. Contrast this to the figure in Pastel. Here a large boy-child clings to the female figure. She clasps him with one arm but the other is raised, almost as if to shrug herself free. The boy is not a baby but clings to the mother like a too-large cuckoo who refuses to leave the nest, still needing her. She is almost unbalanced by his weight. These two works show the competing tensions in the creative life of a woman who is both a mother and an artist. In contrast, Freefall, a work that evolved from the St. Rita series and the earlier St. Rita Luxuriating, shows a woman in a dreamlike state, free floating above the landscape. Here she imagines herself cut lose from this plethora of daily demands. Maybe, we sense, there are times when she wants to be neither mother, nor artist, but desires simply to reckless and irresponsible, indulging herself. How many of us have not escaped to luxuriate and float in a bath of warm water, the door locked to the rest of the household, indulging in the sensual pleasure of our own private space.
In Family Tree and Little Sister the female protagonist has literally transmuted into a dryad, a sprit that inhabits the body of the tree. The tree is also an ancient symbol of knowledge. In Family Tree the woman is embedded in the trunk so that she and the tree have become one. It is her knowledge, her rootedness that, in the end, holds the family group, on the left together. But this would not be possible if she did not feel her own sense of ‘groundedness’ within the central core of her own nature. It is this that finally allows her to be free, to float above daily life and its conflicting demands. Above the tree, she soars, unconstrained, watchful of her family but loyal, in the end, only to her imagination: the artist.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999
Images © Eileen Cooper 1985-1991