Jack Hanley Gallery is pleased to present Janet Cooling: 1978-1982, its first exhibition with Janet Cooling and the first exhibition of her early work since it was originally shown.
Janet Cooling’s paintings made between 1978 and 1982 were painted a decade after Stonewall, in the first years of the AIDS crisis, and during the last major nuclear scares of the Cold War. In the drawings and paintings from this period, Cooling constructs apocalyptic narratives in which sibylline symbols stand in for deeply personal memories and desires amplified to cosmological scale and importance. Suburban tract houses and nuclear plants remembered from Cooling’s childhood in South Orange, New Jersey intermingle with big-haired fashion models and roaming wildlife appropriated from magazines. Elsewhere, women couple erotically in sublime landscapes while other figures are engulfed by burning skyscrapers, fields of lightning, hovering planets, and writhing snakes. Replete with fractured and illogically scaled motifs, the feverish drawings and paintings from this period are acridly pigmented landscapes of disaster and desire.
Cooling made this body of work during a transition from Chicago to New York. In 1978, she had recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute and was showing alongside a group of painters dubbed the Post-Imagists, but in Manhattan she would enter a milieu of other queer artists making work explicitly about their sexualities. By 1982, her shaped works were included in the New Museum’s landmark show Extended Sensibilities—the first institutional exhibition to consider gay themes in contemporary art. Cooling’s work from this period is best contextualized alongside other queer figurative painting of the 1970s and 1980s that was built on personal iconography and a disregard for the rules of good painting, including Roger Brown’s ominous skyscrapers, Martin Wong’s apocalyptic cityscapes, and especially David Wojnarowicz’s brightly colored and dystopic large-scale paintings from the 1980s. Also like Wojnarowicz, Cooling had a deeply romantic sensibility of the artwork as an expression of personal feeling at a moment when such a disposition was distinctly at odds with institutionalized conceptual and postmodernist narratives of artmaking. The period’s deep skepticism of painting wasn’t abated by the medium’s grossly macho and profitable revival in neo-expressionism (in 1986, Hal Foster asked, is it possible to “seriously engage issues of a technoscientific, postindustrial society in a medium, like painting, based in preindustrial craft?”).
In spite of such widespread cynicism, Cooling’s work had a major advocate in New Museum founder Marcia Tucker, who included her work in the controversial all-painting US pavilion at the 1984 Venice Biennale. Tucker’s Venice exhibition built on her well known “Bad Painting” show from 1978, in which she brought together work with irreverent content and a disregard for “standards of good taste” under an ironic moniker. Cooling’s work from the late 1970s and early 1980s certainly fits the bill. The large-scale paintings eschew canvas in favor of shaped gator board, a rigid poly board used in model-making that gives the works a chunky dimensionality. Additionally, they are all painted on black backgrounds, an aesthetic equal parts Caravaggio and stoner art. Cooling applies her rainbow-hued acrylic paints in a series of glazes, spurning the art school rule to avoid using every color on the spectrum in a single composition. Cooling also calls traditional skill into question by purposefully playing with inconsistency and variation in her paint application. While some figures are highly detailed, others are brushed in, resulting in compositions that forgo a coherent and orderly painted surface.
While Cooling’s compositions indicate a deep uncertainty about the present, they also evince a vested interest in future-making. Far from any notion of reproductive futurity, Cooling’s wilderness-ensconced couples inhabit multispecies refuges built on mutual recognition. Her paintings made on the eve of the 1980s remain prescient examples of the expansive possibilities for bridging supposedly irreconcilable modes of making. Cooling employs a fauvist palette with a feminist agenda and makes expressionistic paintings with a conceptual and political edge.
Janet Cooling (b.1951, Chester, PA) received her BFA from Pratt Institute in 1973 and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1975. Feminist art historian Arlene Raven offered Cooling her first solo show, which took place in 1976 at the Women’s Building in Los Angeles. In 1981, she was in in William Olander’s “Young Americans” show with Cindy Sherman and David Salle, among others. The following year, she was part of the New Museum’s “Extended Sensibilities” exhibition, curated by Dan Cameron, the first museum show to address gay themes in contemporary art. In 1984, her work was included in the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, curated by Marcia Tucker. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Cooling had three solo shows at Nancy Lurie Gallery in Chicago and a solo show at Feature Inc., among others. She taught at San Diego State University from 1984 to 2013 and continued to show nationally and internationally. Cooling’s work is in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the New Museum, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the Allan Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin; the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach; and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, among others. Cooling lives and works in Richmond, VA.