So August is a good month for two current exhibitions concerning light. Durham painter Jacob Cooley is showing recent paintings in Luminous at Tyndall Galleries in Durham, and Raleigh woodworker Anthony Ulinski has produced a series of lamps, which can be seen at Artspace.
If I hadn't already been interested in Ulinski's work, I might have missed this exhibition, because the thought of taking a hot drive to Raleigh to enter a gallery full of heat-emitting lamps on a 101-degree day is, admittedly, not a very attractive one. As it turns out, Paper and Light is the perfect exhibition for a hot day (especially if you are already in Raleigh).
Rather than an overheated, over-bright gallery, what you find at Artspace is a cool, dim room lit only by the objects and made fragrant by the stacked cedar boards on which they are displayed. Ulinski has changed that awkward space into a serene haven that invites extended contemplation of his work, even providing two handsome benches, a tree and a fountain as further enticement to linger. This artist usually makes large, labor-intensive sculpture and furniture of carved and painted wood, but for a recent three-week residency at Artspace, he devised the lamp project so that he could work quickly and freely without his full battery of tools and equipment. He spent very little energy on the lamps' structures, focusing instead on sculpting the reed and paper shades that give them their various distinctive forms.
It is astonishing how much variation a creative mind can get out of such a seemingly simple thing. We are all familiar with the widely available globular paper shades, but Ulinski takes us far from the familiar with these explorations of form and surface. While some of his shapes are globular, others are conical, elliptical, or cylindrical, either attenuated and squat. For their skins he uses a range of wonderful handmade papers. Some are tissue-thin, some heavily enriched with leaves, fibers and other bits of vegetable matter; some pale, some deeply colored. In the same way these textured papers are reminiscent of the carved surfaces of his wood pieces, the elliptical form of several of the lamp shades is very like the shape scooped out by certain carving gouges. Even the lampshades' structures echo the rhythmic ridges of some of Ulinski's carved work. It is a real pleasure to see Ulinski transfer his formal concerns and personal manner from the massive and dense to the delicate and diaphanous. Some may scorn this work as utilitarian, but it is very much about shaping and seeing--and what could be a better metaphor for that than the lamp?
Jacob Cooley's work has always been about light (and darkness), and it has been consistently impressive since his 1993 MFA exhibition at Carolina. Over the past seven years, he's made regular leaps of skill and refinement, with each show being better than the last, but the current work demonstrates the sensibility and control of a mature artist.
Eleven of Cooley's recent simply composed landscapes were included this summer in the Greenhill Center for North Carolina Art's second of three exhibitions surveying the work of a dozen North Carolina painters. (The third remains on view until Sept. 1 and includes work by Durham and Raleigh artists Elizabeth Lentz and Lope Max Diaz.) The excellent installation and lighting there served Cooley's stunning pictures well. Unfortunately, at Tyndall Galleries their luminosity is dulled by less-than-optimal gallery lighting, and their subtle internal glow overwhelmed by the August glare bouncing through the gallery windows. However, if you did not see the Greensboro show, these factors should not deter you from visiting Tyndall--go in the late afternoon, when the glare will be less.
The delicacy of Cooley's color shading is astounding. A sky may change seamlessly from grayed-orange at the horizon to an indigo overhead, as in "Five Trees--Orange Co.," or from a pure blue through a haze of bruised violet and rose into a singing orange cloud, as in "Almost Dusk," and these ethereal songs are tethered to earth by a rumbly chant of a hundred dark notes in the verdure. Many of the best of these pictures include water reflecting the skies and vegetation, a muted echo of the main theme. Sky and water are smoothly painted, but Cooley is now allowing rhythmic brushstrokes to texture the foliage and foregrounds and deepen the paintings' spaces. He's very adept at maintaining a sense of the scale of landscape even in the smaller canvases, but generally, the larger pictures are more satisfying simply because there's more color for the viewer to luxuriate in.
First-class painters are rare on the ground anywhere, and anyone interested in painting here knows they are few and far between in North Carolina. So it is particularly wonderful to follow Durham native Cooley's development towards possible greatness. His quiet, unpeopled landscapes are not what is generally called "challenging" art, in the sense of being brashly in the viewer's face about some issue. But nonetheless, each one is a challenge to remember the natural world, to actually see it in all its simplicity and subtlety, to revere its beauty--and, by corollary, to remember the roles of observation and beauty in art.
If art is the lamp we shine to understand the world, then its light should be full-spectrum, reaching to beauty and pleasure. As Ulinski and Cooley remind us, even in August we cannot have too much of that light.