This is the sixth in our series of blog posts leading up to the December Mostra, our first exhibition of this academic year. As part of this series looking at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architect, we interviewed Stephen Cooper, our 2017-18 Abbey Fellow.
Could you tell us how your practice has developed over the years/since coming to Rome?
I have been involved with Italian art at varying levels for a long time, starting from when I was a student. My journey has been from the Renaissance to the Baroque. As a student I was very interested in Giotto, Fra Angelico and Titian amongst many others.
One of the pieces that has been very important to me are the frescos by Fra Angelico in the cells of the Convent of San Marco in Florence. I have visited these cells for many years and they have been a significant part of my adapting and changing my process and evaluating my ways of working. In a sense this is a site-specific work painted on the walls, so it is responding to the space and also the architecture as well as the narratives within the frescos.
The thing that I am interested in is specific responses to a site that engage with and illicit specific approaches. This has become a really important part of my research and where I have found commonality with lots of artists, but the Matisse chapel at Vance is a place that crystallised my thoughts and practice. The architecture of the chapel had become an essential and inclusive element of the making of the chapel. One of the many things I learnt from this was that Matisse had taken the constituents of painting and re-assembled in the interior of this chapel in a new and exciting way and as it was as if you had become a character within one of his paintings whilst sitting and looking at this space he had created. So for me the questions of time and space were being extended.
While resident at the BSR, the consequence of being in Rome is the inevitable dialogues with history. So being in the BSR community and all that that entails, and at the same time being submerged in Rome is complex and exciting. My own approach is through immersion. Immersion in Rome and Italy and in experimentation in the studio. However, a period of reflection will be needed to digest and understand what I have done whilst here for three months.
How has your project changed and developed since coming to Rome?
My initial proposal for the BSR was to look at Borromini and Caravaggio, but the phenomenon of Rome has overtaken me and the project has expanded. I think the idea of transformation has been fundamental in this process. You hope that you will do something here that you have not done before, or that you will attempt to change your practice and perhaps do those things that you have never had the opportunity to do before, so for me the experimentation has been great. However the emphasis is on changing and developing.
I have been including things from everyday life – the things that you can see in the street. For example incorporating the Limoncello bottles from a stall and the gloves in a shop. I like to try and mix things up and to use imagery to form a broken narrative, which then comes together to form a whole. In a way I am interested in wholeness in this project – something that I am working towards in my practice, rather than hitting straight away.
The idea of working as a whole is to do with making the space and the things in it find a convincing relationship with one and other. relate to one another. Physically and mentally I adjust to the space, and this process transforms the work. The idea of chaos is very much there at the beginning and then changes into a disjointed order. This is to do with the idea of perfect/imperfect which I am very interested in and part of.
One of the key reasons as to why my proposal has changed is because of the sites that I have visited. I have visited Santa Maria della Vittoria (the Bernini Ecstasy of Saint Theresa). The thing is that the Baroque is so complex and so multi that it becomes quite fascinating. What I have found is that it takes time and contemplation within the space to understand how it works. With the Baroque you have to really look at the space, see what it is actually doing, the decoration and how the sculptures and painting work in the space. There is a good degree of analysis of the space to be done. This has also been my experience at San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane and Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza as well, both of which are phenomenal buildings.
In researching Caravaggio I have gone inside churches; both the Caravaggios that I have been looking at are inside churches – Santa Maria del Popolo and San Luigi dei Francesi (with the Caravaggio triptych). Whilst studying the Caravaggios, I have also been struck by the phenomena of the churches, which has also been attractive to me in terms of the Baroque.
In previous exhibitions your work has reacted directly to the space in which it has been shown. Has the work you have been producing here been in reaction to any specific place?
For my studio installation, I am going to respond to most aspects of the architecture of the room and to incorporate them into the space.
But I am also looking forward to making a fresh piece for the mostra in the gallery. Both pieces will respond to the specific space. I am a little apprehensive about what I have set for myself and will probably be with it till the last moment.
What made you decide to do a studio installation as well as a piece in the gallery?
It is my way of working. For the last ten years I have responded to the site, the site has been the primary basis for the work. But it is always together with the studio practice. The studio practice is the engine and powers the work. Generally you go to a site and respond to it in a way that complements the practice.
Going to Japan, visiting the Kyoto temples and seeing the relationship between the inside and the outside is so fascinating; the window becomes a picture, and the outside is manipulated to match the inside. This experience completely propelled my interest in architecture forward.
You have incorporated a lot of photos into your work, can you tell us more about the images you have chosen?
I collect images, and I specifically collect images that then become part of pieces. There is a sort of language involved, I often alter the images and transform/translate their meaning.
I never know what I am going to take, but I take photographs all the time. That is why I say that I collect images. In both the process of taking the photo and also after in review, you question your consciousness. Often when searching through a lens you take things that you were not looking for, but there is a part of the thinking and seeing that recognises something. So in the reviewing process you step back and look and think…what is that…that is really interesting or not, as the case maybe??
I choose the images intuitively from my database of images, put them together and see if they work. I like the idea of space and volume and their meaning. The contrast of this gloved hand and the relationship between the images which also coincides with my interest in the relationship between art and life. I see my work as a visual form of poetry.
What have you enjoyed most about being in Rome?
I have really enjoyed being in this community and the amount of shared information and knowledge. Here, you are constantly involved with conversations and you cannot help but soak up knowledge. After watching La Grande Bellezza in the BSR film club, it seems more than likely that the great beauty is Rome.
My ambition with artwork is to have a very close relationship with the audience and to try and make work from the heart which, I believe is something in common with poetry. It has been a really fantastic opportunity from the Abbey Council to be here at the British School in Rome and I am really grateful for it.
Stephen’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the December Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 December 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 December 2017, closed Sundays.
Interview conducted by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events)