Julian Cooper's rock profiles

From Manet and Degas to the Himalayas via Peru, painter Julian Cooper has journeyed around a fair bit for his art. His latest show focuses on Cumbria’s rocky outcrops

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

Julian Cooper: Natural Forces

Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter’s Street, London N1, until 25 April

Like most ambitious artists, Julian Cooper has been pulled this way and that by seemingly conflicting influences. The son and grandson of Lake District landscape painters — his mother was a sculptor — he fell among abstractionists at his London art college, Goldsmith’s, in the late 1960s. But when I first saw his work in the early 1980s, he had emerged as a flagrant figurative painter, with a series of large canvases depicting scenes from Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano. There was no subterfuge about these works; they went straight back to Manet and Degas, not as imitations but developments. Whether from heredity or early practice at his father’s side or hard work, Cooper had the rare skill and conviction to paint realistic people in interiors and landscapes, as if that tradition had never been rubbished by all the subsequent international ‘isms’ of the 20th century.

Then in 1995 he moved on from people to mountains, but not those in the Lake District, where he said the weather was too uncertain to paint en plein air. His true motive was perhaps to keep off family territory. At any rate he travelled to Peru and — siting himself 16,000ft up in the Andes with a huge canvas on a folding easel and a brush as long as his arm — painted four seriously high mountains. The weather may have been reliable but the glacier under his feet was not, so he returned to England with the fourth canvas unfinished. After that he confronted the Alps and the Himalayas, constantly refining his technique and making the finished works mostly in his studio from sketches and photographs on site. More recently he has turned to quarries, the shadowy Gothic ones of Cumbria and the gleaming, smoothly geometrical ones of Carrara.

There are two of the latter in this exhibition, but the masterpieces here — and there are several — are depictions of rocky outcrops in the Lake District. All Cooper’s conflicts of influence are resolved on these astonishing canvases: his grandfather William’s romantic crags, his own early training in abstraction, the deployment of human figures in sunlit or lamplit spaces, his close encounters with high mountains and deep quarries.

Coloured mostly in blue and brown, with patches of white, cream, black and yellow, and touches of pink and green, these rocks are splashed with light and shadow, seamed with cracks and crannies, sculpted with bulges and overhangs. Small trees sprout from their tops, ephemeral living tenants, which paradoxically make their stony hosts — split, broken, eroded — seem all the more alive for having endured the attrition of so many aeons. And it is of course the paint, quite loosely applied on the surface, quite evidently brushed on and even allowed to run down in places in the free spirit of abstractionism, that gives this impression of life and energy from close-up. But if you stand well back, these modest outcrops become grand, three-dimensional portraits of the most ancient creatures of this extraordinary planet.

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