Here is the text for the second tribute exhibition in the Jamaica Biennial 2017, which opens this weekend with several events. The Alexander Cooper tribute is on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston.
Alexander Cooper was born in St Mary, Jamaica in 1934. In 1954, he received a Government scholarship to attend the Jamaica School of Art (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), from which he graduated in 1963. He also attended the Art Students League in New York and the New York School of the Visual Arts. He spent a number of years teaching at Kingston College and the Jamaica School Art, following his return to Jamaica after his studies in the USA. Alexander Cooper has been a regular exhibitor locally and internationally since the 1960s, and has participated in most Annual National and Biennial exhibitions at the National Gallery of Jamaica. One of his most notable was his anniversary exhibition entitled 50 Years–Then and Now (2012), at the Mutual Gallery in Kingston, Jamaica. He has received several awards for his contributions to visual arts in Jamaica, including the Prime Minister’s Award (1993) and the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Award (2001). In 2016, he was conferred with the Order of Distinction (Officer Class) by the Government of Jamaica. Cooper lives and works in Cooper’s Hill, St Andrew, Jamaica.
Today, Alexander Cooper is renowned and indeed beloved for producing genre paintings that present a nostalgic, gently humorous view of Jamaican life, as well as for his portraiture and landscapes. However, throughout his career, he has explored a surprising range of aesthetic approaches which have included abstract and expressionist styles and a variety of subject matter. Cooper regularly credits Jamaican artist Ralph Campbell—his tutor at the Jamaica School of Art—for providing crucial insights on the development of images in paint. He has also credited American painter Robert Brackman—his tutor at the Art Students League of New York—who helped him to refine his figure painting technique.
The types of paintings, prints and watercolours that he produced as an emerging artist during the 1960s, coincided with an ethos adapted by the likes of Eugene Hyde, Milton Harley and Karl Parboosingh, who applied elements of modernist abstraction to Jamaican subject matter. Even before going to New York to study around 1963, Cooper’s paintings showed a clear desire to move beyond the foundations of his post-impressionist beginnings, into a more gestural engagement with paint as a medium, as well as line, shape and colour as compositional elements.
By the time he returned to the island a few short years later, he continued his exploration of expressive painting, eventually towards the point of abstraction. Stevedore (1967) is a highly stylized depiction of a male figure, which has been rendered almost exclusively by a multitude of slashing lines of varied intensities. The result is not a static human form but one that appears to be in motion, as the bow of its legs anchors it to the base of the composition. Cooper continued his sojourn in the possibilities of abstract compositions with his Children’s Series of the mid to late 1970s. Here, Cooper attempts to mimic the naiveté of a child’s drawing or scribble, juxtaposed with minimal yet emotive colour palettes.
From the late 1970s onwards, Cooper started focusing on representational paintings, featuring more realistic depictions of people and environments. Though more conservative than his previous canvases, Cooper continued to experiment with various approaches to expression in terms of subject, composition and colour. His erotic line drawings of the early 1980s stand out because of their elegant simplicity and more daring subject matter, although the curvilinear, dynamic approach to line and composition ties in those works with the rest of his oeuvre.
Cooper however began to settle for a more recognizable style and subject matter around that time, which is evident in the painting Hide and Seek (1979), which depicts children at play in a garden. This work is quite colourful but is united by a subtle series of blue tonalities evident in the complexion of the children and the surrounding environment. This approach to palette—with particular regards to the use of blue undertones—has become one of the signatures of an Alexander Cooper painting. Though he still practices realist portraiture, Cooper’s genre scenes have acquired a gently caricatural quality which adds a humorous element to his loving depictions of what he regards as vanishing but valuable aspects of Jamaican life. He has also continued to explore his interest in architecture, in a series of series of historical scenes of Kingston inspired by archival photographs and landmark buildings.
Cooper has painted numerous portraits of local and international public figures, including key figures in the Jamaican art world. There are also paintings and prints that are more surrealist in nature and tie into themes of memory and aspiration. His Symbol of Life (n.d.) combines both subject areas and is his tribute to the surrealist Jamaican-Australian painter Colin Garland.
Alexander Cooper is one of the most prolific artists of his generation and he is certainly one of the most versatile. We hope that this small tribute will generate greater awareness of the quality and range of his artistic practice.