Marty Walker Gallery, Dallas
Through June 16
by Catherine Caesar
When first entering the video room at Marty Walker Gallery, one is struck by the unusual orientation of the projection: Kevin Cooley’s appropriately-titled Skyward (2012) is cast onto the ceiling of the room rather than the wall. Even once we are seated, there remains a certain discomfort—reticent to deviate from the seated position, we strain our necks in attempt to take in the ceiling screen. It is only once we give in to the experience by lying back on the beanbag chair that we can begin to embrace the serene blue sky projected above. Cooley’s camera is indeed directed skyward, capturing a seemingly uninterrupted vista immediately recognizable as Los Angeles, thanks to palm trees, highway overpasses, airplane contrails and helicopters that periodically flash across the lens. The greater part of the video definitely embodies L.A. car culture, since our beanbag perspective mimics the viewpoint of a reclining automobile passenger gazing through the sun roof at the cloudless sky and the edges of scenery flickering along the perimeter of the road. The faint hum of a car engine and its shifting gears narrates the road trip, which the artist has composed by uniting different segments filmed during a journey from downtown L.A. out to the Palisades.
Our expedition is both mundane and graceful. We routinely observe our surroundings from the inside of a car, yet that view is rarely unimpeded, due to the noise and threats of urban traffic. Cooley’s Skyward allows us to relish in this metropolitan oasis, imagining the wind blowing our hair during a trip to the beach on a cloudless day. To further this sense of quiet serenity, Cooley intersperses moments of timeless poetry into an otherwise real-time trip. Fat bumblebees hover leisurely over our heads while a series of blimps silently traverse the sky. These brief respites suggest that the rapid speed of our everyday travels hinders our ability to perceive the beauty and grandeur of what is always present (I began wondering why I rarely see blimps—are there more in Southern California than Texas?). This sense of wonder culminates when a bunch of pink balloons enters the lens, and the car-camera quietly comes to a stop so we can take it in. Although the balloons are the oddest vision we encounter during the journey, they are still commonplace—like a marker of a birthday party or a new baby girl tied to a suburban streetside mailbox. But here the balloons are singled out from their surroundings, backed only by the intense blue sky, allowing the suggestion of a birth of a brand new year of life to shine unhindered by a prosaic context.
Much of Cooley’s previous work explores the juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade, the latter often signaled by the shock of the color pink against a landscape. In his Devil’s Churn, a hot pink inner tube spins and rocks, seemingly ad infinitum, within a tumultuous Pacific Coast inlet, while the pink balloon motif from Skyward may originate in Cooley’s Saguaro, where we await its demise as it blows dangerously close to an enormous prickly cactus. This 2011 series, entitled Primary Forces, plays on the power of the four elements, here water and wind, while celebrating the majesty of the Western United States from the perspective of the artist: an Oregonite now displaced to New York. It is this ingenuous Pacific Coast joy that pervades the denouement of Cooley’s Skyward, when the viewpoint of the automobile sun roof is replaced by that of the small aircraft window, and the urban road gives way to the ocean and shore, with the L.A. skyline visible in the distant haze. Already slightly lightheaded from lounging in the beanbag and gazing at the ceiling, Cooley’s viewer is doubly dizzied by the airplane’s loop-de-loop, which creates a momentary dislocation akin to the experience of Robert Smithson’s circling Spiral Jetty helicopter. The boundless urban sky that predominates the first seven minutes of Skyward dissolves into the boundless Pacific Ocean during its remaining moments, and the infinity of nature seems to triumph over the manmade structures.
Yet there is something naggingly familiar about Cooley’s viewpoint; perhaps its scope and disorientation recall an IMAX movie, but that reference to popular culture hearkens back to the realm of the prosaic, always lurking in Cooley’s work. To Cooley, the pink balloon may be as cheap and transient as the urban vista or, alternately, it can be perceived with the wide-eyed joy of a little girl playing at her birthday party, or of a Brooklynite revisiting the azure intersection of the West Coast skyline and the Pacific Ocean.
Catherine Caesar is an art historian specializing in American art of the 1960s and 70s, and Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Dallas.