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Designs In Decay

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Diane Cooper

at Ohio Street Gallery, through February 14

Macena Barton

at Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, through February 23

Diane Cooper's new mixed-media works at the recently opened Ohio Street Gallery aren't much to look at at first. Each of the three pieces in the "Kyu Square" series is a three-by-three grid--kyu means "nine" in Japanese--of irregularly torn squares of canvas. Strips of canvas droop down, and the edges are frayed and not always flat against the support. Painted blotches and lines are scattered about. The casual visitor might recall the criticism so often directed against modern artists, "My kid could do that."

But the marks, virtually all made by Cooper, aren't as random as they seem. In the three squares of the center row of Kyu Square No. 3 are small groups of blurry lines partly obscured by floating swaths of pale colors, but they also look oddly calligraphic, almost like Japanese ideograms--hinting at language. Further, many of the apparently random lines continue from one square to the next, and with some subtlety; in one instance a horizontal white line arcs upward from one square and continues in the corner of the square above and to the right. The artist is creating patterned surfaces that initially look like the random products of aging and decay.

Kawa No. 3 (kawa is Japanese for "leather") also looks junky at first: several scraps of heavily worn leather sometimes overlap, sometimes protrude from the flat support. Except for a small red triangle on the right, each piece is an irregular mixture of gray and brown festooned with Cooper's white, gray, brown, and pale purple marks of every shape and thickness and seemingly pointing every which way. But while no two marks are identical, there is a pattern of sorts--similar colors and shapes are placed nearby and almost parallel to each other, while contrasting colors are almost perpendicular--while the odd purple mark is an anomalous squiggle. The rough edges of the leather pieces form a design: several edges running diagonally are nearly parallel or perpendicular to each other; one is almost exactly parallel to the picture edge. The little red area--which reads almost like a joke on the drabness of the rest--is itself heavily worn, with rough areas of dark brown.

These are works that revel in the natural processes of aging and decay. The minimal formal ordering Cooper provides offers the viewer a kind of framework for finding pleasure in these layered surfaces, which are almost like geological strata. But what makes these pieces so rewarding is the way she balances randomness and order: her forms are organized just enough to tell us an artist was there and no more. The found objects she includes can be presented with minimal alteration while the aged surfaces she creates could almost be products of nature.

These are works that change as one views them. Pleasure in the ordering patterns and in the sensual surfaces leads to an appreciation of the way pattern is balanced with randomness. Though Cooper writes that her work represents "frustration, success, depression, elation, and all other emotions connected with the creative process," I never found these pieces to be expressions of human affect; rather, traces of the human seem to coexist with traces of chaos, of nature, of the unknowable. Each work finally led me to a meditative, almost empty state. The artist's hand is not presented as a force that can remake the world but as a more modest presence that can order some small parts of it. And because Cooper chooses to present not the symmetrical intricacies of a flower or a leaf but rather the disorganizing, entropic forces of weathering and decay, one's mind is led not toward images of perfection but toward a kind of imageless void, the emptiness to which all decay leads.

That Cooper seems to know this on some level is apparent in Kawa No. 4. The piece of leather covering the top three-quarters resembles a theater curtain that's started to rise: it has vertical folds, and its rough-edged bottom enhances their effect. But the flat surface beneath it, simply painted in similar leathery shades of brown, is just as plain. Layers on layers generally suggest that something essential is being concealed, but Cooper's layers are concealing nothing more than an even flatter, emptier version of themselves.

Cooper, born in Detroit in 1936, has lived in Chicago for the last five years. In the 1960s she rediscovered a childhood interest in drawing by taking courses at various community art centers. By the mid-60s her figurative drawing had given way to abstract painting; and in 1970 she moved to Tokyo, where she studied Japanese, calligraphy, and Japanese brush painting. She was impressed by the multiple-image layers in contemporary wood-block prints, but what most impressed her was "the worn patina of aged wood, the roughness of old ceramics with glazes dripping down." Her five years in Tokyo were followed by eight in another ancient city, London. While working on some of the pieces in this show, she returned repeatedly to a book on antique Amish quilts, not for their designs but for "the old, worn look they get from use."

Shibui Squares Nos. 1-54 consists of 54 separate six-inch squares; mounted in a six-by-nine grid, they're exhibited as if they were a single work--which Cooper acknowledges is another way to see them. Among the many materials she uses are canvas, paint, fabric, found pieces of paper, string. Each square has its own odd, almost minimalist beauty--that of a few simple forms seen clearly. (Shibui, says Cooper, means "good-looking without being showy.") Though Cooper hung them in an almost random order, when viewed as a series each square undercuts the next. A mottled, highly textured piece is followed by a smoother one of different colors and materials; a pattern of straight lines is followed by a pattern of curves. In this inventory of materials and forms, none is given any priority. Number 22 is dominated by two grayish pieces of canvas that have folds at the top, as if they were open envelopes; number 31, directly beneath, is a dense network resembling a bed of twigs and tiny plants but actually made of the mesh wrapping for a Christmas tree, dipped in polymer.

These patterns are so different that when the eye passes back and forth between them they seem to cancel each other out, an effect that occurs again and again throughout. Cooper discourages the idea that specific shapes or patterns harbor meaning: behind appearances, which are by their nature illusory and deceptive, lies an imageless, wordless emptiness. Traditional Japanese culture, even Buddhism, may have had a deeper effect on Cooper than she acknowledges.

While Macena Barton once said she had an "orientalist's passion" for color, her paintings are almost diametrically opposed to Cooper's works. If Cooper's tenuous marks lead one beyond imagery, the viewer of Barton's pictures remains locked into the sensuality of her colors.

Barton was a real original. When critics praised the auras with which she surrounded her figures in early portraits, she dropped that aspect of her style. She identified herself with no school, and began one artist's statement, "Only a great ego can produce a great work." To judge from the 18 portraits now on view at Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, she may not have produced any "great" works, but she was an authentic, quirky original whose eccentric art deserves to be seen.

One hopes that someone will get around to doing a biography of this pioneering Chicagoan, because what we do know of her life suggests a strong, colorful personality. Born in Michigan in 1901, she lived in Chicago the rest of her life, dying in 1989. In her early 20s she began a two-decade affair with art critic C.J. Bulliet, one of the few champions of modern painting among Chicago's art journalists.

She was also, a gallery brochure says, "the first woman to do a nude self-portrait." And she painted nudes of her sister: Portrait of the Artist's Sister (c. 1928) is life-size and shows her sister Rosanna from the rear, wearing bright red lipstick and holding a necklace of gaudy red beads. Her body is surrounded at its edge by a deep blue glow that grows paler about a half-inch away--an "aura" echoed in the hints of pale blue in her skin, unifying the composition and making her magical halo seem a part of her. Bulliet, who wrote a number of articles praising Barton, described her nudes as a "synthesis" of Renoir and the "barbaric and gaudy ornament" found in late-medieval painters, whose work Barton loved: "She admired their color to the point of obsession," he wrote.

Barton the accurate portraitist may wish to respect her subject in Portrait of the Artist's Father (1938), but Barton the "barbarian" and "rebel" who "believes in the strength of her ego" (Bulliet's words) asserts her own eye for design and color above all else. In this head-and-shoulders view, her father's beard and pipe point outward almost phallically and his eyes gaze firmly to the right and a bit upward. But this assertiveness is undercut by the odd, almost primitive way his face is modeled--its curved surfaces look more like the molded plastic of a doll's face than like human flesh. The folds in his gray coat have a similar modeled-clay look. One might ascribe these features to inadequate technique were it not for a third element: a glowing green background, a good deal brighter near his face--a kind of reduced "aura." This almost electric green has one foot in the art gallery and the other in the animated cartoon; its blunt sensuousness almost overwhelms the authority of her father's pose.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1946) is even more forceful and less undercut. The subject, in a frontal pose with her hands folded in her lap, stares out, two tufts of hair at the center of her brow duplicating the arch of her eyebrows. Even the bright yellow behind her doesn't undermine her: the same woman, the same year, took her daughter to court to get her into treatment for alcoholism. One relative told a reporter that her drinking had begun a few years before, following the breakup of a long love affair with an art critic.

Portrait of a Gentleman (1947) again reveals a curious mix of impulses. A large, imposing fellow in a three-piece suit is seated on a chair covered with a bright floral pattern; the solid background is the oddest combination of pink and purple. His sternness seems at odds with the color and with the lush garden of the chair's fabric; but then his face too is quirky and schematic. He seems one part authority figure, one part cartoonish doll, and one part almost fetishized icon, the pure gold icon's background replaced by a mixture of royal purple and comic-strip pink. I've never seen another picture quite like it--except, of course, other Bartons.

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