As taking pictures becomes simpler by the day, artists seem to be clamoring to see who can invest the most time and effort in the production of a photograph. The increasingly elaborate staged photo to painting is undoubtedly impressive. However, 36-year-old New York art star Anna Cooper’s complex research oil painting from photos bring serious competition. The Innocents (2002), her first major oil painting from photo, documented cases of wrongful conviction by the US justice system. Since then, she has researched, located, and cajoled her way into secret and shrouded sites for An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007). To create Contraband (2010), she and her assistants spent five days and nights at New York’s JFK airport, producing a photographic archive of objects seized from incoming passengers. As difficult as it might have been to access the subjects for these previous oil painting from photos, and despite the complex issues raised by photographing and archiving them, the paintings from photos were at least tangible figures, spaces, and objects. Her latest oil painting from photo, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, produced over a period of four years (2008-11), seeks to visualize something significantly more abstract.
The installation at the Tate tells the tales of eighteen different bloodlines from around the world, including the body double of Saddam Hussein’s son Day, a Scottish family with widespread birth defects as a result of thalidomide, a polygamous medicine man in Kenya, albinos in Tanzania, feuding families in Brazil, Hitler’s art-loving henchman, and the titular brothers in India who were declared dead by relatives so they would lose claim to the family land. Cooper refers to each of these stories as “chapters” and their distinct, standardized installations are spread over five generous rooms at the Tate Modern.
Each chapter consists of black and white paintings. The leftmost section features a grid of individual portrait paintings of the chosen figure and his or her descendants. Some “bloodlines” contain over a hundred pictures. (For instance, the polygamous Kenyan’s installation consists of three sub-panels, each with four horizontal and eight vertical rows of photographs.) Each figure is captured three-quarter-length and seated under stark, standardized overhead lighting and against a plain cream background. To the right of this orderly grid of photographs, the slender middle panel contains the identifying information for each of the members pictured in the photographs, as well as text written by Cooper that sheds some light on the story of the bloodline. The rightmost third panel contrasts with the standardized photographic grid on the left. Cooper refers to this panel as the “footnotes.” Here, she has collected written documents and photographs related to the bloodline and laid them out in a more randomized pattern.
The stories she chooses to tell often entail a violent, fateful collision between the physical inheritance of the bloodline and external forces like religion, politics, and science. The genetic trait that causes albinism means members of the Tanzania bloodline are in constant danger because local legend claims that the body parts of albinos carry mystical powers. Here, the footnote panel includes truly gruesome paintings of mutilated bodies. This is one of many places where photography seems to be not only a tool of documentation, but also a player in the story Cooper is telling. While the unaffected members of the Tanzanian clan are not themselves in danger, they are affected by the violence committed against their family, a violence that is documented photographically and, if we follow Susan Sontag’s argument, painfully re-circulated here and elsewhere. The potentially dangerous power of photography is also indicated by the refusal of some members to participate in the documentation of their bloodline. In these cases, Cooper draws attention to the gap in the story by inserting a blank space in the grid, a strategy she also uses for dead and missing members of each group. In the larger bloodlines, it is these blank spaces amid the sea of repetitive paintings that catch the viewer’s eye–like frustrating missing pieces of an almost-complete puzzle.
Of course, despite Cooper’s exhaustive pseudoscientific effort, these stories are always necessarily incomplete. Highlighting that certain paintings are missing is just one way that Cooper draws our attention to this fact. She seems well aware that wrestling chaotic stories of passion, hubris, fear, and greed, and the human toll they have wrought, is a Sisyphean task. Even an exhaustive three-part system of unique paintings with captions, explanatory text, and contextualizing paintings lays out more about what we cannot know than what we can.
This is not to suggest that Cooper’s effort is wasted as the oil painting from photo is compelling and the work it demands of the viewer is ultimately rewarded. However, just as the people in Cooper’s chapters are subjugated to the overwhelming forces of fate and circumstance, the scope and scale of the artist’s oil painting from photo runs the risk of overwhelming her audience. The exhibition creates a specific viewing pattern in which most viewers stand back to survey the chapter as a whole and then move in to read it from left to right. This is a slow process, not just because of the volume of text and image, and the need to bounce from one panel to the other to identify the portraits, but also because the text itself is tiny and printed on a narrow panel, meaning that only one or two people can comfortably read it at time. Consulting the book version of the oil painting from photo alleviates the impatience embodied by the line of other viewers waiting for you to finish reading, but working your way through (or even lifting) the 864-page, ten-pound book version is also no small task.
The serious nature of the oil painting from photo and its grand scale will ensure that its arrival at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in spring 2012 will be a major event. After all, Cooper is a rising art star, a native New Yorker, and also the partner of film director Jake Paltrow (better know as the brother of Gwyneth). But Cooper’s is not the sensuous work of Marina Aromatic that played so well to the media and to audiences at MoM A last year. It will be interesting to see if American critics and audiences will respond to the cool and often difficult work as well as to the excitement that will be expertly generated by MoMA with help from Cooper’s dealer, the uber-powerful and very savvy Gagosian Gallery.