The woman arches her back in a perfectly-balanced athletic pose, her body graceful and lithe. Her hair falls free and touches the ground, rooted to the earth like the tree that brings equilibrium to the picture. There’s another balance too. The flecks on the body, remnants of residue of the lino-block from which the image was taken, gives it a strength echoed by the tree’s trunk. And all within the brightly coloured and collaged setting of a fable where reality and imagination meld together.
This is unmistakeably Eileen Cooper OBE, the expert painter, draughtswoman and printmaker who, in 2010 was elected as Keeper of the Royal Academy of Arts, the first woman to hold the post since the Academy’s foundation 250 years ago.
Her new solo exhibition at London’s Sims Reed Gallery, entitled Short Stories, comprises a series of collages and monoprints taken from her Giselle and Rosa Solo lino-cut series that sprang from her experience working with the English National Ballet in 2016-17. She followed a production of Giselle from rehearsals to final performance and one of the ballerinas then posed for her at her studio. None of the contortions have been exaggerated, she assures me.
The version of Giselle was not the classic one but an adaptation by choreographer Akram Khan who incorporated into it a type of Indian dance called Kathak. You can see it clearly in Duet with its wonderful sense of movement emphasised by the wave-like paper cut-outs. The female body has always been central to Cooper’s work. What’s more, much of her source material down the years- Japanese prints, Indian miniatures and early Romanesque art – have been non-western. “I orchestrate space in a very flat, non-western way,” she says. So the appeal to study this version of Giselle was twofold. The flatness of the perspective also gives her work something of the abstract. “I’m a figurative artist who’s definitely closer to modernism than I am to representation. My pictures always look at home sitting next to abstract work.”
Eileen Cooper has only relatively recently worked with collage which makes up most of the exhibition. Her collages are unusual in that not only are they print-based but they are taken solely from her own work and sometimes include drawings. Collage also enables her to use images which perhaps didn’t work on their own but somehow can blend in well as part of an assembly. “I feel I keep my practice quite fresh by doing different things,” she says. “It’s very much about touch – the tearing, the assembly, the hand-printing and the cutting.”
This sensuality extends to the subject matter too. Her work has an intimacy, her forms both personal and universal. Monoprinting offers her the opportunity to be spontaneous with a sense of immediacy akin to drawing. By re-working the block, she can make very slight or very dramatic adjustments to the basic print. New Chapter 1, above, is featured with different coloured backgrounds. It has a touching tenderness, literally, in the way the woman caresses the man’s head.
In this and some of her other prints, the subjects are looking in different directions. They’re together but not dependent. I wondered if there was a some kind of feminist message here. “That’s just me observing,” she answers. “I don’t have a plan”.
The intimacy of such as Echoes Proposal, of which there are six versions, some with collage and with different coloured backgrounds, is helped by a non-tech approach and hand-printing in her painting studio rather than a print one. There’s a wonderful fluidity in the simple lines. “The first print,” she says, “is always stronger, too strong sometimes, whereas the third is more seductive.”
It’s a seductive exhibition – intimate, sensual and with a lightness of touch. With those bright, paper-layered backgrounds of predominantly orange and brown contrasted against the blue skies, cleverly torn to reveal the impression of clouds, it’s a show that evokes great warmth.
Short Stories by Eileen Cooper is showing at the Sims Reed Gallery, 43A Duke Street, St James’s, London SW1Y 6DD
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.