The works of Alika Cooper act as taunting riddles. She appropriates subjects from the work of male photographers and makes textured fabric collages of curvaceous female forms, ironed, stitched and sumptuously arranged. There is violence to her works, she cuts up these objects of the male-gaze, and restitches them into patchwork pieces as her own feminist statement. These pieces don't let the viewer off easy. The work makes work.
"It's good to confuse the viewer," she says, passing a Helmut Newton book on a table of her Boyle Heights studio. She wears a brown, oversized corduroy 1970's blazer hanging on her own female form, hidden beneath a bulky shirt, wild dark hair cut into a messy bob and pushed behind ears. "You want the viewer to experience the shift in priorities, that tension by viewing. They spend more time in it, trying to figure it out."
Her eyes are quiet, steely and brown, as she peers into the large Helmut Newton book of photographs. The fashion photographer's images have often become victims of Cooper's patchwork pastiche.
Cooper is from a small town at the bottom of the California map, rural and pastoral in its landscape, where the idea of being an artist isn't an obvious lifestyle choice. Poway's, motto: "The city in the country." As a young girl in art class, she discovered she had an aptitude for painting, yet not the understanding that it could be translated into longevity. Surrounded by women in her own family and community who had put aside their dreams to be mothers, wives, supporters and healers, often in abusive or confining relationships with men, yet themselves never activating their own agency, began to take its toll on Cooper. Her pieces then become in many ways, small attacks on those that have unconsciously worked to keep women feeling trapped in these limited positions.
"My mom and aunts are quilters, domestic crafts, they make birdhouses, those sorts of things," she says. "Initially I wasn't interested in it. I was making these paintings of movie starlets, right before they became famous or when they were at the end of their career, obviously aging. I started feeling stuck and was looking for a new symbol for Feminine and then fabric presented itself as the answer to that."
At the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, Cooper had an artistic awakening. The feelings found an outlet, a language. "At first I wasn't sure that I wanted to do this, but I enrolled and that first week, looking through the book, I kept reading, art history, art history, art history, and then after that, I just never looked back." She dove head first into drawing and painting, finding the support of professors immediately. "It's always encouraging to have that kind of affirmation." A decade on Cooper still thinks fondly on those early professors, crediting them in many ways, with allowing her a space to express all that had been bubbling beneath.
Using heat activated adhesive fabric, an iron and the methods learned from her mother and aunts, Cooper slowly and meticulously constructs each image, often flipping it's perspective, either zooming in on one aspect of a photograph, or removing key components of another to create an often times dizzying abstract effect, forcing the viewer to search for the body within the collage.
An image rendered in Cooper's hands takes on an almost universal new age beauty, something not inherent in the original. In "Bulb," a recreation of a Man Ray photograph of a woman posed behind a light bulb, the object in Cooper's piece, collaged in sensuous dark blues and pale peach tones, becomes a floating nebulous orb, reminiscent of the earth or moon, juxtaposed against the soft curve of two perfectly rounded breasts. In some ways, creating a correlation between earth and creation, perhaps illuminating the very thing Man Ray was after, yet through the taut realism of the photographic medium, was unable to achieve.
In "Magazine," copied from a Newton photograph of Cindy Crawford crouched and straddling another model while holding a picture of her own face, against the reclining model's face, Cooper removes both bodies, and the picture of Crawford, leaving only a torso being covered by what was once a photograph. She strips the women of identity, leaving only the cropped and objectified behind. "I'm obsessed with women," she says.
Photographers like Helmut Newton, Brassai, Heinz Hajek-Halke and their clinical precision with a lens both captivated and alienated Cooper at initial meeting. Then she decided that the best way to join the boys club was to reconfigure it by undermining its practice with painterly aesthetic skill. To highlight the very thing the photographs do away with, the three-dimensionality of female nuance: Reducing all to the bodily form, the outline of a hip. Relabeling female experience as visual consumption. By stretching these images and replicating them in her own manner Cooper reduces Newton and his like to exactly what they are: aesthetically skillful voyeurs with little invested in their models beyond their physical malleability. The fabric then becomes a plea for textuality.
Cooper says she loves Newton, loves the work, and loves the reduction. "I'm interested in these male photographers because it's the photographer who is iconic, not the subject." Hers is a call and response, a playful wink; a way to acknowledge talent and still critique the project. The male photographer's model arisen from the photograph, clothed in her own sloppy, foppishness, flopping beside Newton and his peers and offering a toast, inviting herself without an invitation and then owning the party.
Cooper's New York solo show earlier this year at Tracy Williams Ltd. gallery, debuted a slew of new collages, some of which incorporated the appropriation of female photographers. Another recent addition to the pieces was the introduction of gradient fabrics, allowing the artist to create shadow and contour where before the figures were cut off at sharp angles. Now, there is a blending, a process of integration where perhaps none existed before.
Cooper's choice of photographers, whose own practices have been critiqued and reconsidered so many times, was difficult to approach from the feminist perspective. Even the word 'gaze' runs the risk of sounding stale. However, these nude-colored, earth and jewel toned, constructions, all seem naked and embarrassing. In the joy of viewing, is also the act of becoming implicit. It becomes harder to critique a thing when what's presented begs to be worshipped. This is Cooper's project, how to be critical when a piece of work is electrifying. How to both celebrate and cut down the Newtons of the world, to a reasonable shape, something worth taking to task. As critic Andrew Berardini writes in Artforum, "this air of violence is present in all of Cooper's constructions; her patchworking of the subject- a breakdown and reassembly of the human form- reveals an ambiguity toward the eroticism of the body. Just as easily read as landscape, the bodies of Cooper's paintings offer us images of femininity remapped."
In "Strong Arm," based on another Newton photograph of a woman flexing her muscles, Cooper zooms in and crops out the models elbows, leaving her head twisted to the side, creating the effect that the woman is in fact being held down. For those familiar with the original image, it is a subtle nod to the both the active and passive nature of being captured on film. And in the case of female fashion models, the castration of their own viral power and removal of interiority. In Cooper's collages the elephant in the room is brought front and center, in the fabric rendering of these bodies is the beautiful and abhorrent nature of objectification.
"In a way, they are paintings, because they are on a canvas," she says "but because of how they are made, they are also definitely collages. The way I work is that I get on a research kick, I will read all the books I can find about something, then I look for a vein, once I find that, I'm in."
What might strike brightest and freshest of all is how unlike anything else these works resemble. Whatever they are, that infusion of fire and passion is visible on the surface, and simmering beneath.