2016: Issue 4: Blend 43: James Cooper

Disney’s empire is made of children’s dreams, and is testament to the prevalence and power of this dreaming – as is this show, that blends together the corporate and the childish in a strange landscape of broken signifiers and images. Cooper’s exhibition is a stroll through signs untethered from their referents; they both yield to recognition and resist interpretation and understanding. We can perceive amongst them Sonic the hedgehog, Felix the cat, some of Guston’s lumpy people and then so many brands I don’t know, but can somehow recognise, among them the familiar and the common – like the eponymous blend 43.


Cooper’s drawings seem, on first approach, to be comparable to pop-art strategies; yet their very clear materiality and basic, linear construction exposes a different agenda. Cooper’s line is not a line that is appropriated, taken from another medium – it is not an elision of the fact that it is aquarelle pencil on board. These lines seem more comparable to the naïve artists, Phillip Guston, who is referenced in Cooper’s work, but also to DuBuffet’s ridiculous paintings. The knowing naivety of Cooper’s faltering line appears to examine a wilful infantalisation that is prevalent in contemporary consumer culture. The presence of cartoon characters reinforces this perception. When we have been marketed to from our youth, these industrially produced images take on a totemic character in our lives. The cycle of the production of these images is not upheld in Cooper’s works though; they are instead reflections on the character of existence informed by these products. They have become detritus and waste material, as every sort of commercial image production must become in order to allow more to follow it. So they are, in Cooper’s works, erased and crossed out and hidden from sight. They are failed productions, rendered by a hand that does not try to create the sharp, clear lines of a machine, nor the flat, bold colours of an animation. The faltering character of these drawings is an attempt to come to terms with some more psychological role that these images now play, a sense of recognition we often share.


Cooper’s show is also a resistance to the packaged and the stylized though. These characters are not copies of the products of commercial entertainment; they are a sketchy language, like maps of navigation in a wasteland of images. Their shaky outlines and rough rendering contribute to their strangeness. It is an act of resistance, which takes the language of numerous sources and combines them in a fractured, dream-like landscape. A free associative list, which, like the lists of David Foster Wallace’s radio host, Madame Psychosis, is not unlike a nightmare.


The very name of the show ‘blend43’ is aligned with the bland, bitter, and dirty left-overs/produce of commerce and industry. Instant coffee, freeze dried, pre-packaged, it is a bizarre parallel to the nature of this show – similarly a nightmare perhaps, but without, unfortunately, any of the intelligence and absurdity. This show stands in contrast to its namesake, it is subtle and strange, and a powerful vision of the world we live in. This exhibition was one of the most potent explorations of image culture I have recently seen. Though it still has specific limitations, its willingness to traverse heterogeneous terrain, and the body of cultural signifiers inherited from television and the Internet that makes up our childhood fantasies has accumulated in something important, and fascinating.


words by Graham Mathwin