Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Italo Calvino + Courttney Cooper = What It Is

I was so looking forward to Matt Morris' take on Courttney Cooper's show at PAC Gallery (in Walnut Hills) that I was afraid maybe I was expecting too much.  I wasn't.  His review of "Cincinnati USA:  Before and After" is an amazing exercise in pulling two disparate worlds together in order to show that these worlds are interchangeable in ways we never  allow ourselves to consider.

Calvino, a canonized literary figure who passed away in 1985, wrote neo-Realist fiction, fables and meta-narratives that question the very necessity of literature while proving how important it is.  Morris quotes from Invisible Cities, a tall-tale, prose/poem novel featuring Marco Polo explaining his travels to Kublai Khan.  The book is beautifully pretentious and yet completely down-to-earth, and as you read it you become lost in Calvino's trickery and style while also understanding how trickery and style can become platforms for philosophy and morality.

Cooper, a local Cincinnati artist who is just beginning his career, draws intricate maps of Cincinnati on a large-scale with an ink pen, creating webs of streets and buildings and words with a high-intensity series of lines that mutate and vibrate like ghosts anxious to tell you secrets.  He is a master of both obscuring and clarifying:  his maps, as Morris points out in his review, resemble Calvino's sense of literary constructions in poignant and precise ways.  Specifically Morris writes:  "Like the world Calvino writes about, Cooper’s Cincinnati is one that is lost in time, where buildings, construction projects and festivals from different points in recent history are conflated into a single view."

Morris merges Calvino's fantastical depiction of a bustling dynasty with Cooper's fantastical depiction of a bustling Cincinnati, and the comparison allows you to conflate the works of Calvino and Cooper in a way no one would have done unless Morris wished the two together. 

The juxtaposition allows Cooper, who could be defined as an "outsider artist" or an "artist with a disability," to be defined only by his work, just as we usually allow with canonized figures like Calvino.  It doesn't necessarily "lift" Cooper up, as much as level the playing field -- as if Cooper, in his drawings, is not only drawing a city, but creating his own identity.

Matt Morris' "Midwestern Marco Polo" in Citybeat.