The day of the opening reception of Douglas Cooper’s new exhibition “Stairways to Heaven” at the Concept Gallery happened to be gray, cloudy and cold, typical of Pittsburgh weather in January.
Inside the Concept Gallery, the reception was crowded and light warm and amicable. Yet no viewers would fail to recognize those six foot vine-charcoal drawings displayed where they had been minutes ago.
In almost all drawings (It is hard to determine whether we call them paintings or drawings since the vine charcoal on paper is covered with transparent acrylic vanrish. The indefinite gray-degree of vine charcoal provides arresting contrast of light and shadow), Cooper chose the most idiosyncratic subject: hills and stairways. The hills arch up from the Ohio-river valley and take the huge proportion for the foreground. They would have looked cartoonish if in a small format, but such disproportioned compositions in ambitious sizes challenge and confront each viewer without even giving them a chance to take them light.
Viewers browsing through from one end to the other would possibly grasp more than one story lines. Here the linear perspective is only used to distinguish the foreground and the back but within the foreground multiple perspective were chosen to skew and slant different parts. Such angularity was chosen carefully: they were confronted at some places (mostly at the top of buildings) with others but later tension got released when different angled walls merge into the ground.
Even though most of the viewers can identify almost immediately the scenes through some iconic buildings or geographic features, they may be confused if they take the reality for granted. Cooper’s Pittsburgh is mixed with reality and imagination, past and present: here day light of the grand vista view fades away as soot-polluted air forces foreground houses lit with electricity; Mellon Area, the doomed Igloo, is grounded beside long-gone smoky chimneys; even school buses and cars greet each other obsolete and new.
There is a kind of Gershwinian spontaneity in these drawings: Like those stories in the traditional Chinese paintings with parallel perspectives, the narration seldom focuses on one specific point. Pedestrians climb the stairway, cars bump into the view and landscape is ever-changing with the wind blowing the smoke. Instead it is the hustle bustle city living (regardless old or new) that was on exhibition.
In the book “The Culture of Cities”, Lewis Mumford says:
“Cities are a product of time: buildings and monuments and public ways, more open than the written record leave an imprint upon the minds even of the ignorant or the indifferent. Through the material fact of preservation, time challenges time, time clashes with time. Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city until life itself is finally threatened with suffocation.”
Pittsburgh had reached its climax before its industry backbone experienced a sharp turn. The resurrection is taking gentle touches on the faces of the city, but over years, changes have been made to cover almost every facets of the city living except its reputation. Cooper, a native Connecticut who has been in Pittsburgh for more than two decades, wove the nostalgia for industrial glory into the modern immediacy, by doing so he is telling a series fairytales orchestrated with time and space that manifest the ideal urban milieu.
Almost accidentally, before I went to the opening reception, I visited Gilliland Gallery in Ligonier where two types of Pittsburgh painters were presented and cherished. The first group is scalp-level painters headed by George Hetzel. While the industrialization was beginning to make the permanent mark in Pittsburgh, those painters retreated to the unspoiled rural forest near Johnstown for inspiration. The other is Christian Walter who loved as much the gray-skied western Pennsylvania landscapes as working-class people and industry scenes. But the WPA era scenes of Pittsburgh have a striking darkness, machine-coldness and oppressing harness: viewers can be impressed, but not as for living potential. Unlike either of the two types, Cooper made it clear that the hustle bustle city living can be exploited as having been at once timeless and immediate.
Coming out of the Concept gallery the cold night had almost fallen. Regent Square was lively with stores and restaurants. But there were not many people in sight. The light beams from the cars clashed angularly and lit up the few pedestrian who walked in a hurry to the next warm stop. Different sounds, different colors and different lights collaborated to sing the utmost motif of the city-living symphony. It was neither loud nor pure; but the sonority sounds pleasing, as those hanging inside the gallery.