Midwestern Marco Polo

Courttney Cooper maps Cincinnati through memory and imagination

Apr 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Critic's Pick

PAC Gallery’s newly opened Cincinnati, USA: Before Meets After, a solo exhibition of Courttney Cooper’s drawings, continues its recent interest in ambitious projects by artists without formal training.

As I’ve written in these pages previously, I don’t believe the merit of these artists’ work is found in the discussion of their differences from “mainstream” art. In Cooper’s case, his large-scale, meticulously scribbled aerial views of Cincinnati bring together memory and imagination and allow versions of the city past to blur with the present.

Cooper, 38, is a Cincinnati native who has exhibited near and far in museums, galleries and various folk-art festivals around the country. He’s also participated in numerous projects at Visionaries Voices, where he goes almost daily to continue work on his drawings.

While this exhibition also includes several smaller paintings and even a quilted drawing, Cooper’s primary series consists of city views drawn in “Bic” ink on enormous sheets of paper. Each piece usually requires between nine months and a year of labor. Because Cooper folds them up in his backpack between drawing sessions, they take on the appearance of well-worn maps.

The hatch-marked grids of buildings that fill much of the page might be any city. It’s Cooper’s precise placement of recognizable landmarks and the layout of large interstates and thoroughfares that twist through the drawings that specifically characterize them as Cincinnati: Eden Park, the train yards, Union Terminal and, most recently, the tiara-shaped Great American skyscraper.

The time I spent with Cooper’s drawings reminded me of Italo Calvino’s experimental novel, Invisible Cities. In it, the explorer Marco Polo regales his emperor with tales of his travels to fantastical and complex cities across the globe. Ultimately, paradoxes emerge in which the two characters seem to be imagining those cities into existence.

When the emperor says, “I have constructed in my mind a model city from which all possible cities can be deduced,” it strikes me that Cooper’s versions of Cincinnati are such a model. When Marco Polo describes his destinations — “Cities light as kites appear, pierced cities like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm, filigree cities to be seen through their opaque and fictitious thickness” — he could very well be writing about the intricate worlds Cooper creates from the crisscrossing lines that appear gray and misty when viewed from a distance.

And 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. The 2010 work “Old Buildings Got Torn Down” is a clue into Cooper’s interest in earlier eras. Dated like headstones, icons of buildings and bridges are treated as fallen compatriots. Black fabric panels frame the drawings like a memorial quilt. During my visit to the gallery, longer residents of the area pointed out buildings in Cooper’s map drawings that were torn down years ago.

While these depictions look like a Cincinnati we know, they are envisioned from a timeless magical thinking. In Cooper’s realm, Oktoberfest is a perpetual festivity and hot air balloons drift continually above the Ohio River. One would almost see these as Utopian renditions of the Queen City.

But true to actual urban spaces, there are occasional ruptures in these streets. Handwritten text frequently peeks out from underneath layers of drawing and is often as jarring as hearing a violent dispute echo through the streets as you walk home at night. “Get your hands off me you dumb son of a bitch!” is scrawled across one depiction of Mirror Lake in Eden Park. In another work, one of Cooper’s many rants against the overweight is in clear view: “GET THESE FAT, SMELLY PEOPLE OUT OF THE STORES RESTAURANTS AND WORK PLACE AREAS



These outbreaks subvert a simple reading of Cooper’s work as charming cityscapes. Like Cincinnati itself, Cooper and his work embody a contradiction between nostalgia and disconcerting elements of menace.

CINCINNATI, USA: BEFORE MEETS AFTER continues through May 21 at PAC Gallery (2540 Woodburn Ave., East Walnut Hills). Gallery hours are noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Visit


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