Off the wall: One of James Copper’s pictures from his successful helmet series being exhibited in Trinidad. *Photos by James Cooper
Off the wall: One of James Copper’s pictures from his successful helmet series being exhibited in Trinidad. *Photos by James Cooper
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FRIDAY, OCTOBER 14: Diving fins and a palm tree leaf strapped haphazardly with masking tape to a model’s bike helmet isn’t your average portrait but then, James Cooper isn’t really your average artist.

Could his “helmet series”, currently showing at the Alice Yard gallery in Port of Spain, Trinidad, hark back to the unexpected juxtaposition of objects adopted by the surrealists of the early 1920s? Or maybe it snubs the clichéd images of paradise routinely featured in the galleries of Bermuda and the Caribbean.

For the Bermudian-born photographer, the meaning of his art is not necessarily all that deep — his work speaks to his own experiences, aims to be satisfying on an aesthetic level and is extremely open to interpretation.

“You could try and make a social comment about it but I’m a little bit lighter than that,” he says. “It is conceptual to a point, but I like the way they look. I combine elements of my life that don’t normally go together in ways that create something unexpected or visually intriguing and create their own life.

Personal

“I grew up in Bermuda and obviously your environment affects you but my work is more personal to me. I don’t really mind if someone has a totally different reaction to it.

“It is weird to me that I can tape a few things to a helmet and people want to see that in London and in Tokyo — its crazy but it is really appealing on another level. Art is about that — it makes people happy and enriches your life.”

However it is interpreted, art lovers from Bermuda to the Caribbean and as far as Norway, Italy, China and Japan have been attracted to his unique and offbeat style.

Relatively new to the art world, the 45-year-old father of twins is certainly making up for lost time.

He has exhibited in galleries including LVL3 Gallery in Chicago, Stork Gallery in Oslo, Norway and the Primo Piano Gallery in Leece, Italy. Locally he was featured in the Bermuda National Gallery’s 2010 Biennial and is currently featured as part of the gallery’s Reinterpreting the European Collection. His Alice Yard show in Trinidad was curated by Christopher Cozier who is one of the curators for the BNG’s upcoming June 2012 Biennial.

Aside from the galleries, Cooper has been featured in several prominent art and culture publications including Dear Dave Magazine in New York and Vice Magazine in the UK.

His next project will take him to the Ghetto Biennial in Port au Prince, Haiti this December. It is the first major project of the Fungus Art Collective which Cooper recently launched with fellow artist Russell Demoura and craftsman Roger Simmons.

The Ghetto Biennial was launched three years ago by Brit Leah Gordon and each year attracts international coverage.

“The only stipulation for the show is that the work has to be created there,” explains Cooper. “It’s a cool challenge — it is about the connection with the other artists there.

“We are using (inflatable) swimming pool rings, hundreds of them, to fill a space. I think both of us Russell and myself are minimalists at heart so we are using just one material.

“I liked the idea that we are using our own breath to fill up a room and I wanted to make it quite architectural so you can move through it. I think we can make something really beautiful.”

Cooper’s work is primarily made up of photographs with many of his subjects photographed underwater. His models might be tangled up in fishing line, spewing out coloured dye from their mouths or swimming with unusual objects drifting from their bodies. The majority of his photos are often vibrantly coloured and come from an obscure perspective.

Cooper said that the Internet has been an important tool in his work as a photograpgher. He admits that he is a “small fish in a big pond” having exhibited next to established artists such as the highly successful sculptor, photographer and filmmaker Matthew Barney. His first taste of success came when he was featured on the online gallery www.tinyvices.com founded by Massachusetts-born photographer, curator and designer Tim Barber. 

“It opened up the art world in a way I didn’t even know was out there,” said Cooper. “Before the Internet, you had to physically take your portfolio around to the curators but now my work lives online. TinyVice was huge for me — it is a hugely respected site. To succeed, you need a break somewhere.

“For me that was my lucky break and confidence grows with people liking your work.”