For the past five years, Atlanta artist Don Cooper has painted concentric circles radiating from a tiny red dot called the bindu. In E-8?, a collection of 16 new paintings at Sandler Hudson Gallery, he continues this format with variations in scale and materials. At first glance these works seem to be solely about optical illusion with their vibrating interplay between complementary colors and rings of subtly graduated hues. But inspired by the metaphysical symbol of the bindu, the paintings are a sustained meditation on spiritual transcendence and the journey of life.
Cooper begins by making a pinprick in the center of the composition as a visual metaphor for birth or beginning. Using a handmade compass, he precisely draws each circle expanding toward the edge of the canvas or paper. Each ring is painted with up to 60 layers of thinly pigmented acrylic or watercolor. “Going around and around in these circles is like reciting a mantra,” he said in a telephone interview. His focused process produces images that are stunning in their visual complexity yet generous in their simplicity.
AM Portal presents a simple luminous circle that pulls us in and holds us in its gaze. We are disoriented by the ambiguity of the image as it presents both as a mass and a void. In a masterful use of color, a thin blue line creates a boundary between the silver-gray center and a rust-colored background. As the title suggests, the acrylic painting offers a glimpse of the transcendent and the immeasurability of the unknown.
In looking at these paintings, it is impossible to escape the bindu, which signifies a point of origin, point of return, and the point at which the universe expands and recedes, among other meanings listed on Cooper’s artist statement. We look at the expanding rings in the composition, but our attention inevitably returns to the focusing red dot. The eye moves from the center, outward through the rings, and then returns again in a cycle mirroring birth, death, and return.
In interviews, artist statements, titles and his website, Cooper often hints at the meanings of his paintings. “You’re born, you go away, you come back, and you die,” he told a group of students in an impromptu artist talk during a recent Westside Arts District 3rd Saturday Art Walk. “In Buddhism circles are a connection to the greater whole,” he added.
Yet his abstractions resist easy interpretation, and the tension between abstraction and representation is part of their power. For example, in the exuberant watercolor Travels Through the Universe: Suki’s Bindu, it is tempting to read the multicolored strata as history, the life cycle, or the interrelatedness of all things while recognizing them also as a color field.
Well-known locally for his bindu paintings, which have been exhibited previously in solo shows at Sandler Hudson and at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, Cooper will gain a wider audience when a few of his paintings travel to Boston next month for the inaugural exhibition of the newly launched Artadia Exhibitions Exchange. Cooper and seven other Atlanta artists selected in 2009 for the Artadia Awards in Atlanta will show works in an exhibit at the Boston Center for the Arts from November 19, 2010, through January 2, 2011. The curator of the exhibition, Dina Deitsch, who is assistant curator of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, was in town selecting work from their studios this week.
As Cooper’s work heads to Boston, one cannot help but think that his impact as an artist is following the widening gyre of his paintings.