ELIZABETH COPE – Notes on the paintings

by Hilary Hope Guise

An unholy alliance between fragile vulnerability and plunging certainty seems to dominate Elizabeth Cope’s creative personality.

Her brush swings and plunges through a storm of colour, while, with the lightest hand on the tiller, she pilots her painting towards its resolution. The very graphic quality of her line, seeking to simplify, search for, and explain all the minutiae of the world around her, has a quality that is both child-like and yet instantly recognizable as true; thus donkeys with five legs standing in the snow, or rhinos with three heads swinging around to look at you strike one as perfectly logical. These images are both touchingly naive and yet sagely wise at the same time.

The cover of the first edition of BLAST, 1914. Tate Collection. Covered by a notorious pink cover referred to by Ezra Pound as the "great MAGENTA cover'd opusculus"

The sense of speed is overwhelming. She must hurry up. What she wants to say is slipping away even as she says it. So hurry! She paints with exhausting energy, staying just one moment ahead of history all the time. Everything suggests that painting is a way of pinning down the fleeting moment even as it passes.
Time in Elizabeth’s work urgently rushes past, as her ‘works in progress’ seem to document a life in progress. The often unfinished feel of her canvases, suggest the rushing on towards more, and different, views and feelings. Life, generally, is always only a work in progress. We can only roughly capture the full spectrum of its colour and character. Speed, energy, colour and line, therefore, dominate Elizabeth Cope’s works.

Her artistic parentage and ancestry are not difficult to discern. One can easily feel her exposure to James Ensor who had a great influence on Expressionism, but she is without his sense of horror; and Chaim Soutine the Lithuanian Jewish born French Expressionist painter, but again without the grim terror. And she departs from the German Expressionists for the same reason. Most close are the more playful Dutch expressionists, notably Christiaan Karel Appel who was one of the founders of the Cobra Group with is reversion to primitivism and its use of children’s drawings as a point of departure. Also another Cobra painter, the Danish Asger Jorn, is a clear favourite of Elizabeth’s. More recently Marlene Dumas, the naturalized Dutch South African, comes to mind. Elizabeth also won a residency to work in the studio of Edvard Munch in Norway, who is also a fellow-traveler in some, but not all respects. The Irish black humour is rather different and more accessible that the Nordic depressions of Munch.

All of these artists drew on the premise that the emotion of the artist legitimizes the work of art. This idea; that the feelings of the artist are of paramount importance as they validate the work making it genuine and ‘real’ so that any object can become and ‘art object’ if the ‘artist’ says it is his ‘art’, was new in the late 19th century. It has evolved through the 20th to the point where an empty white canvass is proclaimed a work of art by its ‘creator’, sold by the artist to a major cultural shrine (the Pompidou for example) , labeled catalogue and exhibited. This is ‘Statement art’. But this sea-change in attitude only came about after the art world had been overwhelmed by Vincent Van Gogh. It was Van Gogh who established, without intending to, or meaning to, the overriding concept of the 20th century, namely that the artists’ own feelings justify a work of art. Elizabeth’s works, full rather than empty, are a diary and testament to her own inner emotional life and are fully justified because of this – whatever she chooses to paint.

Emotion is the colour in our lives, and colour expresses emotion in painting. It is in the richness of colour that the heartbeat of the artist can be felt – the spirit of creation itself. Elizabeth Cope lives for colour, and her works reflect her multi-coloured view of her world. Sometimes she lifts the colour key to include light turquoises, pale oranges, whites and blues and sometimes she descends through heavy black lines, to deep blues and violent reds. Her scarlet lobsters are seriously scarlet. She may have a pink attack and paint the entire background of a vast 8’ square canvas shocking pink. This brings to mind the personality of Percy Wyndham Lewis who published the first volume of his Vorticist Journal ‘Blast’ in 1914 with the most violent pink available to the printer.

Movement is also central to Elizabeth Cope’s work. Change and energy are always only expressed through movement, as stasis equates with death, or Divine stillness, that unchanging still point of the turning world that Elizabeth Cope resolutely ignores. She is of the ‘here and now’, expressed in all its suddenness. Abrupt changes of direction as long legs and arms careen across acres of canvas, lurching and swerving in impossible and sometimes undignified attitudes, prove that her figurative paintings are nothing, if not graphic. They are accounts, not of what it looks like to be a human being, but what it feels like. Her very large canvases show life-size erotic works which are rude, funny and tragic. They are brutal in that they seem to pour scorn on the ridiculous vulnerability of women, while at the same time wittily and wryly winking at the comedy of it all. And there is perhaps a note of nostalgia for past emotions, past madnesses.

But domestic bliss is also not far away. Elizabeth’s many still- life paintings are light and airy domestic scenes casually unconstructed, they are heart-lifting, bright, and colourful.

Elizabeth draws on the everyday minutiae of her family life at Shankill Castle in the lush hills of County Kilkenny, on the borders of County Carlaw. Gothick windows overlook the long ornamental lake. There are vast Monterey Pines, and Wellingtonias, walled vegetable gardens, and old stone stables, the moated garden all ferny and wild, white geese on the green lawns, her beloved donkeys, the cats outside and the dogs close to the Aga. While inside the house, dark stone passage –ways, unexpected stairways, old kitchens, and vast mirrors imported from France in the castle’s glory days, all provided Elizabeth with motifs for her work; her still- lifes, landscapes and donkey-scapes.

But restlessness drives Elizabeth on to conquer new territory, to paint, as she has done, in other exotic places like Central America, Norway, Africa and India. Her exhibitions have likewise been wide-spread and she is well-known way beyond the confines of her native Ireland. In 2011 she will take an exhibition to New York.

Elizabeth Cope is a most un-clichéd artist. While her work is always recognizably her own, she is quite un-formulaic, both as a person and as a painter. This originality, or ability, to un-self-consciously be herself, both in life and in her work, and to ignore the pressures to conform to this or that painting fad; to be honest with herself and with others makes her work refreshing, original and life-enhancing. Like her fellow Irishman, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Cope has no time for art-schools and is an autodidact, feeling convinced that art schools do nothing but harm. Francis Bacon also famously rejected the art school route – in favour of finding his own language of gesture and form, unique as it is. They also share the Irish blackness and her humour is always just below the surface. She says she wants to “go down” with her website on her coffin: www. Elizabethcope.com.
Elizabeth’s engagement with all her subjects is so vivid, so much of the present moment, and to walk like this in the ‘Is-ness’ of life is a gift given to few.

9th August 2010