Art review: Mystical inspiration for abstract works by Don Cooper

Atlanta-based artist Don Cooper makes visually intoxicating meditations on color and shape apt to pull you into their bull’s-eye centers.

Cooper’s latest show at Westside’s Sandler Hudson Gallery, “Don Cooper: Fire Within,” doesn’t look like much artwork produced in Atlanta. With its intense colors suggesting desert sunsets and campfires and the earthy hues of Southwest stucco homes, Cooper’s paintings often suggest a vision formed from intense sunlight, and a New Age-meets-abstract lexicon that evokes states of consciousness or cosmic spirituality.

In “Fire Within Lotus” in acrylic on canvas, a succession of triangles ends in a tiny yellow dot at the painting’s dead center, a visual enticement to draw your eye into the painting. That impulse for art-as-transcendence is part of Cooper’s ongoing interest in Eastern religion and a vision of art as a portal to spirituality. The Indian icon of the bindu, as a source of life and origin, reappears in these works, which can give viewers a feeling of moving through the painting’s triangular portals to a point of origin in the distance.

While it has often been concentric circles, radiating out from a center like ripples in a pond, in “Fire Within” the triangle is Cooper’s primary muse. It’s a form that evokes ancient pyramids, fire and signposts, or — like Georgia O’Keeffe’s exquisite flowers — bodily orifices and portals to some other, unseen world. One has a feeling of movement and enthrallment, as Cooper’s radiating forms draw you into the paintings’ interior.

Cooper plays with that shape in myriad ways, filling his triangles with gradations of color — orange, yellow, red or surrounding them with soft halos of light. In other paintings, Cooper creates rainbow layers of color or surrounds his triangle with a circle. That later technique, of a triangle within a circle, can give some of his paintings the totemic look of an arcane religious order or hieroglyphics.

That sense the work can give, of a personal lexicon or some ancient sign system, is especially true of a selection of 12 watercolors on paper arranged in a grid. Those intensely colored works in shades of safety cone orange, red and blue feature that signature combo of triangle and circle. Cooper achieves a far more complex, mesmerizing effect in his larger watercolors in softer shades that feel like falling into a snare trap for the eye. With their more subdued color palette and repeated, beckoning circles, those utterly enticing works, including “Fire Symbol” and “Fire Inside,” radiate energy and attraction like storefront neon.

Cooper has been painting for decades, and could be considered one of the founding members of the city’s art scene since his University of Georgia days in the ’60s, reliably turning out work with an Eastern bent and an ongoing fascination with painting’s mystical possibilities.

In “Fire Within,” his paintings have varying degrees of seductive power. I found his watercolors most compelling for their combination of subtlety and the strange gravitational pull of his soft interplay of shape to subtly draw you into their hypnotic aura, like a hypnotist’s vortex, compelling us into its pulsating center.

“Fire Within” may be most compelling to fans of abstraction interested in the semiotics of color and shape and how radically different effects can be created with a limited lexicon. And for those drawn to an idea of art as transcendent, Cooper’s paintings are of ongoing interest, assertions of the power of nonrepresentational art to open the doors of perception.

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