Sunday, April 13, 2008

towards a counterforces review of "Learning to Love the Species" by Susan Seydel Cofer

Attentive readers will realize I face the odd conflict of interest of writing in praise of a show that includes a work of art that depicts me.

However, I cannot afford to buy it, and have not been offered it as a gift (which I would not accept as a matter of principle), and the Cofers have not attempted to bribe me with extravagant trips or offers of money so I would assume that ego is the only factor involved.

—which it always is. In all times and in all places.

And that brings me to the reason why I feel that "Learning to Love the Species" is a remarkable exhibition (at the UGA Broad Street Gallery as mentioned heretofore).

Cofer creates allegorical artworks that tend to fall between accepted categories for artmaking. Her papier-mache portraiture (can't be bothered to insert diacritical marks, sorry) uses a medium more often associated with craft projects. But she is a consummately skilled and careful worker in conventional media, so if she uses papier-mache, it will be for the creation of a complex, intelligent, and well-crafted artwork.

And it is the type of complexity that interests me most in terms of the expressed preferences of this Counterforces weblog, which at its best is devoted to the presentation of unfashionable alternatives to the contemporary art dialogue, but to ones that raise substantive intellectual issues. (Or, in the case of Glen Baxter, that make fun of polenta.)

Cofer's spinny choice of title illustrates her perspective: in a show devoted to the facts, foibles, and fantasies of individuals, it is the species alone that gets star billing. There is a reason why she and I were early-adopter readers of E. O. Wilson's approach in Consilience (whether or not we agreed with Wilson's conclusions) and why both of us like some of Tom Stoppard's plays (regardless of what we think of them as intellectual documents or as artworks). Cofer is a playfully big-picture sort of person, tempering aesthetic sensitivity with acerbic wit and refining abstract intellectual perceptions with a strong sense of irony and capacity for visual metaphor.

Her diorama portraits of the mostly rich and putatively powerful (I am the exception to both) are created according to visual metaphors that occur to Cofer, not ones that they themselves pick out. The results are complimentary on a deep inner level—she sees what's up with people and accentuates the positive without altogether eliminating the negative, and sometimes messes with mr. in-between.

So it takes a certain amount of nerve mingled with intrinsic trust to agree to sit for a Cofer diorama portrait, because you never know what kind of company you will end up keeping when the whole scene appears to your wondering gaze. All you know is that it will tell you something about yourself that you either did or did not know.

Whether or not they liked the details, I have never heard anyone say openly, "That's just not right!" As with the interpretations of Hermes, the truth that is told may not be the whole truth, but Cofer does not claim to be the Delphic Oracle either in her breadth of comprehension or her ambiguity. She claims only to be making art based on extensive research into what the subject has chosen to make available, plus whatever else that might suggest.

And as we know from biographies of all sorts, even carefully mapped trails can lead in all sorts of extraordinary and scarcely expected directions.

So when I finally read High Museum of Art curator Carol Thompson's catalogue essay about an exhibition in which I share wall or pedestal space with Cofer's husband Carl, ex-congressman Wyche Fowler, Sir Vidia Naipaul, New York Review of Books co-founder Robert Silver, and a redoubtable range of legendary art patrons whom I will not here name for fear of offending those left unnamed...when, as I say, I read the essay at long last, I expect to be informed and stimulated by a range of vision that is seldom encountered in this era of excessive specializations.

We can be grateful for the existence of Cofer's inexhaustible imagination and curiosity about the world we live in (as well as the one in which some of us don't).

And those of you who read Counterforces regularly and live within driving or flying distance of Athens, Georgia can go hear Ms Cofer deliver a gallery talk on Thursday evening, April 17, 2008 but you will have to visit the University of Georgia website to find out the details, for I can't be bothered to clutter up my posts with things that would require yet another Google search.

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