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The female gaze

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A major exhibition of the work of Eileen Cooper RA has opened at Harrogate’s Mercer Gallery. Yvette Huddleston spoke to the artist and the curator.

“With a lot of our exhibitions we are planning them years ahead but this one came about through a happy turn of events,” says Jane Sellers, curator at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate, of their latest show Hide and Seek featuring the work of Eileen Cooper.

And it is quite a coup. Cooper is a hugely respected contemporary artist and in 2010 became the first ever woman elected to be Keeper of the Royal Academy since the organisation was first established in 1768. Best known for her richly coloured, expressionistic paintings and prints, Hide and Seek presents the artist’s rarely seen drawings, made in a variety of media including charcoal, pencil, pastel and ink.

“It is a really big deal for us to have got this exhibition,” says Sellers. The ‘happy turn of events’ she refers to took place last year. A committed champion of women artists throughout her career, Sellars had written a book about the work of women artists in the Mercer collection which includes an early print of Cooper’s from the 1980s Learning to Fly and sent a copy to all the contemporary, living artists she had featured. Cooper contacted Sellers to thank her and the two got talking which led to the show.

Born in Glossop in Derbyshire, Cooper studied at Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Art in London and by the 1980s was exhibiting widely. The drawings on display, spanning nearly 40 years, are striking in their honesty and tenderness – these are very personal images and with an unapologeticially female perspective. “Her work connects with the fundamentals of what it means to be a woman,” says Sellers. “She is painting and drawing about her feelings but her images are more allegorical than that – she is often described as a magical realist – and you can see so many influences at work, fauvism, Gaugin, Frida Kahlo and Picasso, especially in the drawings.” Recurring themes are the competing demands of family and career, women’s sexuality, motherhood, juggling child-rearing and creativity. “In a way I don’t set out deliberately to tackle those issues in my work,” says Cooper. “The starting point for me is always the personal, and the personal becomes universal. The two are inseparable, really.” The resulting work is bold, engaging, visceral – and always accessible.

“I think that drawings reveal something of the artist’s thinking process that maybe in a painting gets covered up,” she says. “And it’s the rawness of them that’s interesting – when I look back at the black drawings I made when my children were small there is something primal about them.”

There is also an immediacy which breaks down barriers and communicates directly with the viewer. “A line on a piece of paper exists in space in a way it doesn’t in a painting,” says Cooper. “And the investment is less than if you are working on a canvas so it can be liberating and inventive.”

Teaching has always been an important part of Cooper’s art practice throughout her career and in her role as Keeper of the Royal Academy she oversees the RA schools. “I really believe in arts education and it feels like paying something back,” she says. “Because going to art school changed my life and opened up a whole world I didn’t know existed.

Eileen Cooper RA: Hide and Seek is at the Mercer Gallery, Harrogate until January 2017. The artist will be in conversation with curator Jane Sellers on October 24 at 2pm.