Looking and Waiting and Doing

Ray Cooper. Photo by Brent Fleury.

Ray Cooper. Photo by Brent Fleury.

When he’s in his studio, Ray Cooper is prone to spending long periods of time looking at his work, contemplating the visual problems at hand and what he needs to do to solve them.

These moments of observation are interspersed with bursts of creative activity — mark making and paint dripping — after which the artist is again “looking and looking and waiting.” He’s spent a lifetime evolving his process. “You have to paint something for at least 5 years before you really begin to understand it and feel relaxed with it,” says Cooper. “Ten years in you might hit another plateau.”

While Cooper is reticent to categorize his aesthetic style he eventually settles upon the term “lyrical expressionism,” saying, “I don’t have the angst required to make abstract expressionist paintings.” It’s an apt description as the paintings individually speak their own language. Some vibrate with intensity while others are more sage-like.

In two shows this fall Cooper demonstrates his affinity for paint, and the natural world. “I live in the woods; everyday I get up and I look at the light and I think, ‘God these woods are beautiful,'” says Cooper. “Everyday there’s something new growing and the sky is always different. From day to day I have a new impulse.”

A painting called Daybreak Carolina reflects Cooper’s fondness for skylight; a radiant layer of blue appears beneath a landscape rendered in oranges and greens, achieved by layers of dripped paint. “I’m not interested in portraying a frightening troubled darkness,” says Cooper. “I’m looking for some hope and I use the sky to represent that. Everything reaches up towards it.”

To create the warm shimmering blue, Cooper mixed pearlescent silver paint into his pigment. “I decided that there’s no way to paint a blue sky that I’d seen anybody do that really showed it the way I see it. Even on grey days the sky is pearlescent. The sun is illuminating it. It’s hardly ever a gray opaque matte fog and if it was I wouldn’t paint it,” he laughs.

As a young man, Cooper enrolled in Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts and later attended The California College of Arts and Crafts, but he decided early on to forge his own creative path. “You learn painting by doing it, but you have to have a strong foundation — drawing and art history,” says Cooper. Along his creative journey, artists like Cy Twombly and the French painter, Pierre Soulages inspired Cooper with their confident applications of paint. “There’s a principle, tachisme: one carefully made stroke can say it all,” says Cooper.

The tachisme philosophy is apparent in his painting, Blue River — swashes of ultramarine blue cascade over three wooden panels. To produce Blue River, Cooper first mixed together a fluid batch of paint, which he then poured onto the panels. “I had this big, old, abused house painter’s brush — it was all flayed out,” says Cooper. “I just poured the paint on and I dragged that damaged brush through and it left its history in the mark.”

Typically however, Cooper does not use brushes when creating his paintings, opting for a paint roller to apply color in soft layers — sometimes over natural elements like ferns, sassafras leaves and pine boughs. In this way the foliage acts as a stencil, but later takes the form of a printmaking device used to produce more marks on the canvas. Other materials like discarded papers and gold foil may also find their way into the paintings.

When paperboard is used as his substrate, it is typical for Cooper to work on several pieces at once. A particularly lush painting on board, Flame Azalea, began as a study while Cooper was teaching a workshop at Hendersonville’s art supply store, The Starving Artist. “I had five or six pieces going, not using a brush at all and this one just took me. I stopped and said ‘I need to go slowly with this one,'” says Cooper, who adds that there were days when he just looked at the painting and contemplated on it. “That stillness is so meditative I just love it,” says Cooper. “It was probably at least two weeks of little adjustments everyday before I completed it. One day I just went and got a tool and put the final red details in, and there was the azalea.”

PIECES OF THE SKY: 2 EXHIBITS BY RAY COOPER

In 2010, Ray Cooper was invited by the American Embassy of Tunisia to exhibit a series of paintings in Tunisia in 2011. Due to a popular revolution by the Tunisian people last spring, Cooper’s planned exhibition, “Pieces of the Sky” has been put on hold. This fall, Cooper will be previewing “Pieces of the Sky” at two Hendersonville venues. The work exhibited reflects Cooper’s love for the changing seasons and the Western Carolina Woodlands. “I want to portray a positive aspect of America,” says Cooper.

Fountain Head Bookstore located on 408 North Main Street exhibits Cooper’s large canvases through November 30th. Opening reception is September 2nd 6-8pm.

The Starving Artist located at 814 Kanuga Road in Hendersonville will display Cooper’s smaller works on paperboard through October 15. Reception will be September 9th 6-8pm.

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