Susan Cofer, a lifelong Atlanta native, presents her first career survey, Susan Cofer: Draw Near, at the Works on Paper Gallery in the Lower Level of the High Museum of Art’s Wieland Pavilion [October 27, 2012-February 10, 2013]. The exhibition features almost 100 drawings produced from 1975 to the present. As the title suggests, the exhibition invites the viewer into a literal and metaphysical closeness with the works.
Walls are installed chronologically and small groupings occur to encourage intimacy. The exhibition takes not only physical time to explore but also a larger unpacking that involves subtle shifts in materiality, tonal quality, physical processes, and subject matter that mark the last four decades of Cofer’s work. Moving from Cofer’s more subdued and fainter palettes from the 1970s-80s, to the increasingly illustrative works from the past few years, we gain a full awareness to the dedication Cofer has maintained to her practice—characterized by a repetitive, rhythmic and additive drawing methodology. Her practice sustains a unique and personal way of seeing, interpreting, and evolving through a lifetime of inquiry.
Some of the strongest works date from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Cofer’s methodology not only allows, but seeks imperfections in the paper rag, and this process mirrors the organic subject matter well. For example, Tree Wound, 1976, and Tree Wound (Adam & Eve), 1977, contain an inherent artifact or specimen-like quality due to the seamless collaboration between the rips and folds of the paper and the subject matter itself—tree bark. This process produces opportunities for unexpected framing devices, and thereby reinforces a quiet tension between the paper’s materiality and the image.
Intimacy, through both physical scale and subtle tonalities, directs us to literally ‘draw near.’ Cofer’s painstaking process is only fully appreciated at close range; the actions of first seeing and then interpreting are integral in properly reading these works. And specifically, in several works that lack tone and thereby function monochromatically, such actions are necessary in order to formulate representations from abstraction. Additionally evident in these older works is a hesitation towards directness on the page; the faint line functions as a repetitive manifestation of meditation.
A raw moment in the exhibition occurs from viewing Cofer’s journals and plein air drawings from a trip to the Middle East during 1989-90, exemplified in the delicate work A Wadi in Jordan, 1990-92. As most, if not all, of her work is informed through travel and sense of place, this specific body of work feels responsible for the stylistic shift from the 1990s to the present day. The works that develop during the mid 1990s have a heavy line quality with verdant colors and overall darker palettes. Subject matters shift from the quiet and organic into the fantasical and even imaginary.
One specific work, The Grove, 1995-97, exemplifies this shift. Cofer begins to use paper less as collaborator in the drawing process, and rather a surface on which to illustrate. A darker and brooding tonal palette emerges and framing devices are held less by the shape or boundaries of the paper. Emerges is a conversation about illustration and what formal qualities, such as color and form, can conceptually represent.
Cofer’s viewing desks from the late 1980s re-surface for this exhibition as well as new singular vitrines. These individual sculptural props reinforce the drawings, which are some of Cofer’s newest (2011-2012) and explore topography, maps, and elements of natural navigation. These are experienced by looking directly over and down at the works on a flat plane. The focus on orienting one’s self around each prop feels a collaborative and integral of the viewing process.
The immense time of process involved in Cofer’s works is self-evident, and while certainly not derivative of, carries an affinity to conceptualist and minimalist Roman Opalka, an artist whose repetitive practice became his life’s quest. Cofer’s personal art coefficient is certainly at play here as Duchamp’s Creative Act continually comes to mind—the unknown gap between intention and realization fuels her unconscious desire to search, seek, and ultimately produce.