Sydney 2004

Approaching the Block
Tin Sheds, Sydney University 2004

Charles Cooper's paintings portray the changes to surface markings on roads at, or approaching, Sydney's inner- city neighbourhood known as the Block. Yellow and white diamonds overpainted with zig- zags; pedestrian plateaux that appear and disappear in response to changing policy. All the while, weather and usage erode the paint that continually refreshes, or alters, the signs directed at travelers on these streets. Spanning a decade, his canvases and panels also reveal changes in Cooper's approach to representing such markings as symbols of place (space + time) and demographic flux.

Lawson Street 1994

Lawson Street 1994

Lawson Street 1997.

Lawson Street 1997.

Wilson Street II 1993

Wilson Street II 1993

Golden Grove Street 1993

Golden Grove Street 1993

Carpark I 1999

Carpark I 1999

Wilson Street 1993

Wilson Street 1993

Abercrombie Street IV 1993-2004

Abercrombie Street IV 1993-2004

Approach (Night and Day) 1993

Approach (Night and Day) 1993

Regent Street (Lane Change) 1993

Regent Street (Lane Change) 1993

List of Works

1. Approach (night and day) 1993 oil on plywood 213 x 23cm
2. Great Western Highway (dark road) 1993 oil on plywood 122 x 23cm
3. Regent Street (lane change) 1993 oil on plywood 192x 11cm
4. Baptist Street 1993 oil on plywood 199 x 39.5cm
5. Wilson Street 1993 oil on wood panel 88.5 x 27cm
6. Wilson Street II 1993 oil on wood panel 119 x 30cm
7. Golden Grove Street 1993 oil on wood panel 30 x 72cm
8. Abercrombie Street 1993 oil on plywood 123 x 68cm
9. Abercrombie Street II oil on plywood 57 x 43cm
10. Abercrombie Street lll 1998 collage and acrylic on plywood 91 x 39cm
11. Abercrombie Street lV 1993-2004 oil on cotton canvas 213 x 111cm
12. Little Eveleigh Street 1995 oil on wood panel 73 x 28cm
13. Lawson Street 1993 oil on ply 33 x 41cm
14. Lawson Street 1995 1995 oil on linen canvas 122x 122cm
15. Lawson Street 1997 1997-2003 oil on cotton canvas 146 x 175cm
16. Hugo Street 1997-2004 oil on linen canvas 92 x 214cm
17. Mall 1998 oil on academy board 44 x 18cm

Circulation, Pictorial Space, Time.

Charles Cooper depicts traffic markings – intersections, pedestrian crossings – on the roads in and around the Block in Redfern. The district is perceived as tough and politicised, and on one level this might be projected onto the exhibition. The markings themselves, however, are neutral. We see them worn into the bitumen road, or laid over earlier ones, which are not quite obscured and which might even reveal previous codes of traffic calming. Their surfaces have been weathered by cars, each obeying painted commands underneath. Cooper’s paintings have also been distressed, a process that makes us think about the creative distance between the original motif and the final image. Accrued character is suggested. In the past, theorists described character as an idea of a person or institution that requires appropriate representation. For example, the classical columns of a bank embody the values of solidity that the institution upholds. But character can also be seen the other way round, as an end rather than beginning, whereby the road fragments have gained character from being weathered, from embedded memory.

Memory is an important element of public space. However, when Cooper refers to the communality of roadways he is not only thinking of them in these terms. Rather, they are corridors, linking the exclusive destinations of home and workplace. To use the traditional figure of the civic body, roads are arteries that supply the city’s organs. They are communal insofar as they imply relationships between the parts and the whole. The painted views are of junctures, isolated and framed pictorially as if seen from directly above. As fragments of a network, they regulate and distribute movement, like valves and pumps, controlling the rhythm of cars within the broader rhythm of urban circulation.

The paintings are flat. Cooper has always been interested in perspective, the technique of rendering depth as if it extended from the window of the picture, just as the world extends from the window of the eye. What happens if there is little depth to the motif, and if it fills the viewing field? A road is like a wall, and the z-axis relationship of aggregate, bitumen, and road paint is minuscule. If the eye is fixed on the centre, there will still be warping at the edges of the picture, corresponding to the edges of the slightly curved-sided viewing pyramid that results from the spheroidal eye. Mostly, however, this is unnoticed – the road either sits close to the picture plane or the width of the visual field is disorientingly narrow, as if seen down a tunnel. The overall pictorial effect is that of a plan seen from the air, where the eye stays perpendicular to any point underneath.  The perspectival even-handedness leads to a sort of transfixion, which is what happens when we stare at something long enough for the content of the image to empty out.

Some of the paintings have a layer of stippling. Read first as stylised road aggregate, the paint marks soon detach themselves from mimicry to belong to the artwork and not the representation. We therefore look through the surface veil onto the shallow space of the road beyond. A corollary to perspective is activated, which is the distance the viewer is meant to stand away from the painting. The stippling sits back onto the surface when the appropriate distance is assumed, thereby holding the viewer in a focal position, a pyramidal counterweight to the imagined depth on the other side of the picture. Cooper explores what happens in front of and behind the picture plane – the way we see is as important as what we see – connecting him to an older rhetorical tradition of art theory, in which the audience is already figured into the picture.

Looking from here to there is what we do at a threshold, but some of the paintings are done on boards that are curved and bevel-edged, which denies the transparency implied by the idea of painting as portal. They present themselves as objects. Rather than pictures of what the world looks like at any moment, they record the imprint of events – of weather, of traffic and movement in the neighbourhood, of over-painting – in the style of a chronograph. This is the deeper sense of Cooper’s fondness for maps, evident in the aerial viewpoints, the focus on circulation, and the delight in the conventions of signs. Objects shaped like shields, paintings that depict relationships and movement, mapping, memory, experience; the allusions arch over western perceptions to the artist’s longstanding interest in aboriginal art, which is another way of looking at things.

Michael Hill, September 2004