459 West 19th Street (at 10th Avenue), New York
March 5 – April 2, 2005
Any beekeeper can tell you that when the bees in a hive become too numerous for the space available, all or some of them will leave to begin a new colony elsewhere. Their en-masse activity is called swarming, and it usually occurs after periods of rapid population growth due to fertile surroundings and favorable conditions. Presumably, Diana Cooper experienced such an optimal environment in Italy last year as a Rome Prize winner, for it is clear that she has been busy populating her brain with new artistic ideas. Some of Cooper’s new concepts have emerged from her creative comb and taken up residence at Postmasters Gallery in Swarm, her aptly titled, first New York exhibition since her return from Italy. It is a honey of a show.
There is one dominant piece in each of the gallery’s two rooms. The other works are seen in relation to the dominants—like Workers hovering around their Queens. In the first room, the viewer is immediately drawn to the graphic vibration of a large, predominantly black and white installation that shares the show’s title. As the name suggests, many relatively small parts act in unison, giving the work a swirling, dynamic energy. Like the hexagons in a honeycomb, recurring forms play a major role in the dynamic strength of Cooper’s works. In this installation, a chorus of chevrons and rounded, technological looking shapes soars along the walls and the floor. Like almost all the pieces in the show, it is remarkable in its complexity, impressive in its overall form and demonstrative of another trait that Cooper shares with bees: an ability to build intricate, marvelously engineered constructions using simple materials. Bees use wax; Cooper uses mostly corrugated plastic, cut paper, felt and foam core.
In the second room, Orange Alert: USA is the royal in residence. Its bright orange presence spans the room from floor to ceiling, emitting a visual hum that commands attention, almost impelling viewers to kneel in respect. There is even a pair of felt strips projecting straight from the base of the piece to a cushion that could be used for genuflection.
Or, maybe the pad is meant for introspection. The most memorable components of Orange Alert: USA are small windshield-like objects made with foam core frames and orange gel panes. Visible through them are red felt shapes that look like distant spiky mountain ranges. While four-wheeled travel and far away mountains have symbolized American optimism since the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada highlighted the horizons of settlers in covered-wagons, in this work, the tables have turned. Red mountain ranges, whose contours resemble turbulent economic charts as much as picturesque peaks and valleys, seen through orange windshields, all in front of a fealty pillow, provide a striking combination. Shall we take a knee and contemplate whether instead of seeing things through the rose tinted lenses of late 20th century sanguinity we now huddle behind worldview windshields colored in the orange-alert chroma of caution?
Maybe, but Orange Alert: USA is flying solo in terms of subject matter; geopolitics and economics are not obvious themes in this show. The real common denominator here is the complex visual lyricism Cooper achieves in coupling technological shapes with organic rhythms. In title and in appearance, Mechanical Cloud sums up this intriguing partnership. Its combination of angular and rounded forms brings to mind disparate elements such as circuit boards and cell structures, subway maps and snakeskin patterns; and marries them harmoniously. Tropical Depression, Trapped and Untitled (The Emerger) are all similarly successful, evoking a wide range of imagery including electrical schematics, fungal colonies, topographical maps and urban planning diagrams. All of these pieces, like good Worker bees, function well both individually and as a part of the group, supporting and strengthening their Queens.
But every swarm includes a few Drones: haploid bees that do nothing but mate and die. Genetic placeholders, they are like DNA vessels that pass genes to the next generation without contributing new traits of their own. It is a testament to the quality of this Swarm that only one such cipher exists here. Moving Targets in Black and White functions more like a receptacle for Cooper’s artistic stem cells than as a finished piece. It will no doubt grow into something as beautiful and alluring as any of the other pieces in the show, but it is underdeveloped and has been unfairly asked to hold a wall by itself. It would be interesting in an exhibition of studies, or as part of a documentary on Cooper’s studio practice, but it cannot compete with the other works in this show.
Overall, it is evident that Cooper has been as busy as the proverbial bee in constructing wonderfully engaging and interesting works. If she keeps up her pace, the buzz will be about how her visual sting hurts so good.