A piece of semitropical punk
Artist James Cooper describes his work as “semitropical punk”. “It is not punk like 1980s spiky-hair punk, but punk in the sense that I use materials that are unexpected and ideas that are a bit different,” he said. “I am more experimental, perhaps.”
In 2012, he gained notoriety for a photographic/sculptural work he did involving a crash helmet with plants stuck to it.
In December, that work and a biographical piece about Mr Cooper were included in a new book, the A to Z of Caribbean Art. The book, edited by Mariel Brown and Melanie Archer and published by Robert & Christopher Publishers in Trinidad, includes artists from around the Caribbean. It bills itself as “a resource of information on some of the greatest artists of the region”. Mr Cooper was one of 29 artists chosen for the book.
“There is one image in there to represent each artist,” Mr Cooper said. “The book is more to say this person has done a significant amount of work and there is a little write up about me, which is flattering.”
He first met the editors through Christopher Cozier, a Trinidadian artist who founded Alice Yard, an experimental space and project in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
“We met online several years ago,” Mr Cooper said. “He introduced me to the two women editing this book.”
They included Mr Cooper's work in another book they edited in 2014, See Me Here — A Survey of Contemporary Self Portrait Artists from the Caribbean.
“I first starting talking to them about the A to Z book about a year ago,” Mr Cooper said. “They said it might happen and it might not, so I put it out of my mind.”
Mr Cooper does not really know the criteria for selection. He said there had been a lot of discussion about it on Facebook, with artists from all over the Caribbean complaining that they, or their country, had not been included. Some critics have even claimed the book exploits artists, but Mr Cooper feels far from exploited.
“As an artist, you do get frustrated sometimes, but you are not going to be in every last thing,” Mr Cooper said.
“The book is a great thing to be in because it lasts for ever. Those kind of books do get used by people to find artists to put in other things. It is very nice to be in for sure.”
After he was included in See Me Here, he and other artists from the book were invited to be part of an exhibition in Toronto, Canada.
He thought it was also good for Bermuda to be included in the book. “We get left out of a lot of things,” he said. “We live in a funny little area. Are we really part of the Caribbean or are we not?”
He has shown his work in many exhibitions in the Caribbean, including the Jamaican Biennial in 2015.
“There is a casualness to Caribbean culture and Caribbean people,” he said. “That is what interests me visually and aesthetically. There is a certain sense of humour and casualness that permeates everywhere I have been in the Caribbean. It has something to do with our relationship to America that is confident. We are there, but a little bit outside.”
Mr Cooper said that one day he would like to be a famous artist and earn a million dollars, but he has come to understand that that probably will not happen. In that acceptance has come an unexpected sense of freedom.
“Once you do let go of those pressures for yourself then you may be more free to do what comes out of you,” he said.
“Then people tend to like it, if you can be honest with yourself about what you are doing.”
In May, he was planning to exhibit his work at the Venice International Art Fair 2020 in Italy. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that is now up in the air.
“They have sent everyone an update to say the exhibition spaces are closed,” he said.
“They are putting on a brave face to say things will be rescheduled. That is all you can expect really. It all seems a bit unimportant in the face of the thousands of deaths they've had in Italy.”
Mr Cooper said staying at home during Covid-19 was far from a punishment; it gives him time to create.
“I do look at a ton of images, via art blogs, Instagram, Pinterest you name it,” he said.
“It's a key part of my ongoing ‘art education' so being self-isolated and not going to work has been great for me in that regard.
“It gets me excited about being an artist when I see other interesting things people are creating around the world. I seem to be more in a formulating ideas, digesting information phase right now, which will be followed in the near future by a frantic creating stage.”
He thinks it is too early to know how the pandemic will truly impact everyone, but he is trying to stay optimistic.