Regional Victoria, NSW 1988-90

METAPHYSICAL GRAFITTI paintings, drawings, prints, hologram.
Regional Gallery tour of Victoria (Mildura, Hamilton, La Trobe University, Warrnambool, Gippsland, Swan Hill, Benalla) and NSW (Albury, Orange, Broken Hill)

Metaphysical Graffiti
a bicentennial project 1983 – 1987

Charles Cooper


The Curators of this exhibition asked Charles Cooper to agree to tour this recent body of work because we believe that it raises indirectly many of the areas of concern to white artists attempting to effect a “cultural convergence” with Aboriginal art. It also adds an important critique of the modes of presentation of Aboriginal rock art in catalogues and coffee table books – the only means through which most whites have encountered rock art.

Cooper is interested in signs, in ways of representing signs, and in what signs signify. Nearly all his solo exhibitions have been concerned with those extraneous factors that colour the viewer’s perceptions of any given image or sign. The central concern of this exhibition is the impossibility of an “innocent” perception, where a sign may signify only and exactly what it’s maker intended. Cooper demonstrates that perception is always informed by physical and mental interferences which occur between the perceiver and the perceived. A main thrust of this exhibition then, can be identified as a critique of the very possibility of a meaningful cross cultural appropriation.

This idea is certainly not new, and has been discussed by thinkers in various disciplines for many centuries. But Cooper, in choosing Aboriginal art (and it’s “technological” counterpoint) as the means to make plain his thesis, has demonstrated in striking visual form the truth of his contentions.

Unlike much theory- based art, Cooper’s works are usually quite beautiful. His work has been figurative and painterly since about 1974, and he has even before that been almost obsessive with what may be called “les petites sensations” of colouring. His works always contain subtle colour harmonies that owe little to other artists, and he rarely fails to balance his sound eye for the guileless vesture of beauty against his tendency to weighty cerebration.

The artist is aware of the problematical nature of any black-white cultural convergence, and aware that he is open to criticism as a result of his treatment of Aboriginal art.

He tells me that the immediate reason he used Aboriginal rock paintings rather than any other set of signs was that there is an urgency about the issues relating to Aboriginal art that does not exist with other attractive sign systems. This urgency results from the fact that two vastly different cultures cohabit the same finite area. Due to the tensions in this situation it is vital that we are conscious of distortions in our basically second hand experience of Aboriginal culture. Cooper is not unconscious that his images of distortions are indeed distortions in themselves.

It should be made clear that Cooper is not passing judgement on the reproducers of Aboriginal art. Rather he admits a profound debt to scholars who first drew his attention to the beauties of Aboriginal art through their publications. He is aware that his own works are simulacra, and that the only way to “check the authenticity” of an image is to see the original for oneself. Many of the images he has chosen for analysis are perhaps the most reproduced in the corpus of Aboriginal art.

Cooper is a painter, not a writer. He is addressing the issues in the strongest way he can, through his art. He is possessed of a very stringent set of ethics, and does not intend to sell any of these works, even though the making of them took over three years of his working life.

Cooper’s art asks “How do we see Aboriginal art and culture? What are the conditions under which we see it?” and even – “should we see Aboriginal art at all?” His use of the authoritarian, even bullying, Don’t Walk Man seems to imply that we can not – You may Look but You Cannot See. It is interesting to note that the Don’t Walk Man is probably just as vital to a City dweller’s survival as are the iconographic drawings in Aboriginal art to an initiated Aboriginal.

Through the use of ancient rock art in a modern painting he causes us to ask the questions “what men made those images? how old are the images? how have they survived? what do they mean?” Cooper is neither an aboriginal nor an anthropologist, he does not provide the answers to these questions, but he shows us how we have seen, and that the answers to these and wider questions may lie in our way of seeing.

Cooper has visited each of the sites represented with the exception of Deaf Adder Creek, which has been closed to white visitors for some time. His representations of the Aboriginal paintings are not given in a slick and superficial manner, but have resulted from hundreds of hours of close observation of the works themselves, both on site and in reproduction. His analysis is meticulous, closely observed and cerebral, while always according with his highly refined aesthetic sense.

An introduction to the exhibition, and an explanation of the various series that comprise it, is given by the artist elsewhere in this catalogue.

Charles Cooper is an artist whose work has never been “easy”. His paintings always function at various levels of meaning and are never presented with regard to popular notions of decoration or saleability. His own aesthetics are singular, and his way of seeing, especially in his colouring, does not quickly endear his work to all people.

“Metaphysical Graffiti” is an exhibition that we feel is among the best of his art so far produced. As it also raises many questions of wide concern in this our year of national re-appraisal, we have decided to offer the show for tour throughout the Eastern States.

Alan Sisley,  Hamilton, June, 1988


Introduction by Charles Cooper

This exhibition presents pictorial images to support my belief that perception is always informed, even dictated by  interferences, both physical and mental, which invariably occur between the perceiver and the perceived.

I have used aboriginal rock paintings to represent that which is perceived.

I see the perceiver’s viewpoint as typical of that of a member of my own culture i.e. European and technologically based.

Interferences to perception are invoked through several pictorial devices. For instance, overlying images hint at physical as well as psychological impediments to the processes of apprehending and comprehending aboriginal rock art.

The use of aboriginal rock paintings as the perceived element in my images occurs for various reasons. They are part of the Australian landscape, in many cases fading, decaying and never to be replaced, testaments to an historical and contemporary fact. There is an innate sense of time in the rock paintings. The combination of many years of overlaid paint and natural weathering creates a surface that evokes a sense of deep history. The cumulative surfaces and their sense of time stand in contrast to the achievement in western art of a sense, or illusion, of space. Regarding the latter, it can be argued that the territorial prerogative underlying western civilizations has come to dominate even the picture plane.

A further appeal of the layered quality in aboriginal rock paintings is the possibility, physically and conceptually, of adding one more, albeit discordant, layer onto my reconstructions of these cumulative painted surfaces. Overlaid ‘walk’ and ‘don’t walk’ figures, seen on lights at urban pedestrian crossings, can be read as icons of technological society, visual symbols of its collective perception. I find these graphic figures appropriate because they are ubiquitous, specifically directed and communally comprehended derivations of the human form.

My paintings of rock murals, overlaid with outlines of technological figures, become metaphors for perceptual obscuration. Technology and mass culture interfere with our perception of a different society. ln the same way the ‘walk’ and ‘don’t walk’ figures interfere with the visibility of the rock paintings behind them.

Poignantly, the rock paintings are the issue of a culture which in many cases still relates to them. Their continuing ritual significance means that at least a partial understanding of their purpose is potentially available. One important aspect of rock paintings is that they have been produced primarily for didactic rather than decorative purposes. The paintings have been created to accompany ritual teaching of the stories of ancestral activities. The stories serve as both cautionary tales and navigational tools. They teach survival in a poetic way.

Some of my paintings address distortions inherent in the simulacra by which non-aboriginal culture receives its knowledge of aboriginal culture; one example being photographic reproductions of rock paintings such as those found in coffee table books, posters. postage stamps etc. For the purpose of analysing the interference created by distortions in the simulacrum an alternative would have been to appropriate European art. The result may have been similar quantitatively, but, in the context of Australian society, qualitatively utterly different.

The work is about two cultures that now inhabit the same finite area. This amplifies the importance of any misconstructions which may effect mutual awareness, especially on the part of the invading newcomer who insists on dictating policy. As such it touches upon an essential question in a millennium marked by large- scale colonisation from afar. Since we have intruded and assumed responsibility for the fate of the indigenes, it is of great consequence that whites misunderstand or disapprove of aboriginal values. It is of less consequence if the aborigines misunderstand or disapprove of white values. We were not invitees.

I should add that perceptual interferences need not necessarily have negative origins, but they are ever-present. The sight and mind of a white Australian artist, when regarding the visible world, are interfered with in a completely different way from those of a geologist, a politician, a Chinese painter or an aboriginal Australian. Yet none of these viewpoints is any less perceptually real than the others. or more.