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James embraces kitsch in new Masterworks show

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Bold style: James Cooper loves how the Rick Faries Gallery lighting created unexpected shadows in his Masterworks exhibit, Talk (to yourself) (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

James Cooper was a little puzzled when he got a phone call from Julie Sylvester last summer.

He waited patiently as the Bermudian curator, whose work has influenced many overseas exhibits, talked excitedly about an upcoming show at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art that she was involved with.

“She is super connected in the art world,” Mr Cooper said. “We met through mutual friends, ten years ago. She started telling me about this American artist called William Wegman.”

Mr Wegman is best known for creating a series of video and photography compositions involving Weimaraner dogs in various costumes and poses. In 2000 he began visiting Bermuda and doing paintings of the island inspired by old postcards.

Bold style: sourcing materials for the pieces in Talk (To Yourself) was a challenge for James Cooper (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

“She said Wegman would be doing a show of Bermuda art at Masterworks and she wanted me to have a show opening there at the same time,” Mr Cooper said.

“She thought my bold style would complement Wegman’s. That was fantastic.”

The result is Talk (to yourself). Mr Cooper crafted six large wall pieces and four smaller plant-based works in the show as a reaction to the narrow, rectangular design of the Rick Faries Gallery.

“I wanted to make it feel more light-hearted and not quite so stiff,” he said. “Most galleries can get like that sometimes.”

The abstract wooden pieces are brightly coloured and have tassels, bits of rope, plastic tropical plants and faux fur incorporated into them. There is even a beach umbrella in the middle of everything.

“There is a certain kitschiness that I love about bright colours and plants,” Mr Cooper said. “When I say 'kitschy' I mean there is a 'low brow' aesthetic to my work. It’s not high craftsmanship, or expensive materials.

“In this show I started vaguely thinking about things like consciousness and different ways of thinking about things, and transitioning from life to death. I like to think of my pieces as doorways.”

Bold style: this piece took James Cooper five weeks to make because he kept repainting it to find the perfect colour (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

His photography and abstract sculptures have shown here, in the United Kingdom, Europe, South Africa and the Caribbean.

Mr Cooper also has work in a large travelling exhibition Aligned by the Sun, curated by the New York-based art collective Ghost of A Dream. “They have been all over the world in the past two years,” he said.

People often ask what his work is about, but he has no easy answer.

“The worst part is having to stand next to your work and explain your insanity,” Mr Cooper laughed. “Some people look at my work and say it is about the environment or about regeneration.

“Some people say it reminds them of how plants will take over the architecture of the world. And when people say that I can see that for sure.”

Mr Cooper said there is a real pressure on artists to imbue their art with a specific message or meaning.

“Not that that is a bad thing but, to me, it is a different way of working,” he said.

He spends a lot of time thinking about what he is going to do, but once he has picked a direction tries to put the thinking to one side. “Ideas stifle creativity,” he said.

The pandemic was part of the inspiration behind his current exhibit, which Mr Cooper said was “weird”.

“I am pretty introverted anyway, so staying at home was sort of a pleasure for me,” he said. “I often make things and then take pictures of them.

“During Covid-19 I thought, why don’t I just make the things and not worry about photographing them? That is when I started experimenting by making wooden sculptural pieces like this.”

One of the challenges of making the sculptures was getting all the materials he needed. The “hair” on one piece, was created with rope he found at Gorham’s; the plastic plants had to be ordered online because of the expense of buying them here.

“I wanted to do something with fake fur,” he said. “But I could not find it locally. I had to order that online also. I would prefer to be able to go somewhere and look at the product and decide if I want it before ordering it.

“[But] we are resourceful here in Bermuda. You have to figure out a way to do something and get it done.”

He hesitates to say how long it took to make his wooden “doorways”.

“Technically, it should have taken just a few hours,” he said. “But it was really more like five weeks. For one of the pieces I just couldn’t decide on a colour. It started out as yellow, then it went through three or four different pinky reds, to a fire engine red before I settled on the pink it is now.”

A lot of ideas for artwork come to him as he is waking up in the morning, or going to sleep at night.

“It also comes from doing art a lot,” he said. “You start to trust yourself more. You care less about what other people think.

“I say let me just do what makes sense to me and hope a couple of other people in the world respond to that.”

Six of his nine pieces have a price tag of $3,500. “I realise they are impractical things for most people’s lives, so selling them is not a major concern for me,” he said. “I think they would look amazing in certain spaces.”

Talk (to yourself) is on display in the Rick Faries Gallery at Masterworks until May 30. For more information see rickfariesgallery.com

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Published May 23, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated May 22, 2023 at 6:17 pm)

James embraces kitsch in new Masterworks show

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