Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Michael Cooper Retrospective @ Fuller Craft Museum

The Fuller Craft Museum is currently, through May 13, 2012, exhibiting  a retrospective of Michael Cooper's remarkable kinetic and faux-kinetic wood/mixed-media sculptures. The show was organized by the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco, where the tour ends, having started at the Bellevue Arts Museum in July and is titled Michael Cooper, A Sculptural Odyssey, 1968 - 2011.

To put it mildly, Michael Cooper's work is visually and technically complex. The woodwork aspect of his sculptures incorporate bent lamination, stack lamination, steam bending, marquetry, veneering, turning, and sculpting (sometimes all in the same piece); but then many of his pieces also include complex metalwork, sometimes purely non-function, but other times he has build mechanical parts, including gasoline powered engines, to create kinetic sculptures.

One of the most complex pieces in the show is Gunrunner. Though it looks like it moves, this is one of his faux-kinetic sculptures.
solid and laminated hardwoods
I've included multiple closeup images since there are so many small parts in this piece. Amazingly, everything is wood. For this piece especially, however, I recommend checking out Michael's website to see better images. As you will see from the other pieces, guns are a common imagery in his work and this one has a gun incorporated into it as well, though it is hard to see from my pictures. Given the title of the piece, it is safe to assume that the it is a key feature, though I also suspect that at least part of the point of the complexity is to conceal the gun within it.
Gunrunner (closeup)
Gunrunner (closeup)
Regrettably, only if you know what to look for, you can see the back of Michael's gun in the picture below.
Gunrunner (closeup)
There are a couple of more, easily visible, guns in this piece, Armed Chair. Though a complex seat by most chairmaker standards, this is one of the simpler pieces in the show.
 Armed Chair
laminated hardwoods
Ceiling Flapper is a kinetic piece that seems to be a tongue-in-cheek variation on a ceiling fan design. It wasn't working while I was there but I was told that it opens slowly, both the internal and external sections, and when it reaches the apex, it claps shut quickly and loudly, no doubt also providing a refreshing and powerful, if very brief, breeze.
Ceiling Flapper
aluminum, wood, fabric motors, plexiglass
This piece, Gun in Greater Perspective I, speaks directly to an incident in his life that helps to explain why guns are a constant motif in Michael's work. If you stand right in front of the gun and look down the barrel, what you see is the exact perspective of looking down the barrel of an actual gun. I believe it refers to an indecent Michael mentioned in a video playing in the exhibit in which he talks about working alone in his father's convenience store (?) as a teenager when he was robbed at gun point. He also talks about another traumatic gun experience in the same video in which he was sickened by the results of his intentional killing of a bird with a new BB gun earlier in his life. 
Gun in Greater Perspective
Gun in Greater Perspective
This second gun sculpture, Gun in Curved Perspective I, isn't intended to depict a gun from any real-life perspective; rather, it is more of a cartoon caricature of an actual gun, perhaps to contrast the seriousness of the subject with a lighthearted perspective.
Gun in Curved Perspective I
laminated mahogany and ash
Gun in Curved Perspective I
Modified is another of Michael's many vehicle themed pieces. I was told that it can actually get up to 80 mph, making it the most kinetic sculpture in the show. Though it looks like the seat is fiberglass or metal, it is actually painted maple. Looking at the engine parts in the back I could tell it has been used though I was told Michael hadn't, perhaps wisely, take it up to the maximum speed.
painted hard maple, anodized aluminum, chromed and painted steel,
stainless steel, and mechanical components
Ride is also kinetic, and, though it isn't actually supposed to fly, it does hop as the wooden propeller turns.
steel, aluminum, wood, gas engines, pneumatic air system
Gasoline goes in the eight glass containers surrounding the propeller. Each feed a small engine that exhausts into the metal tube that raps around the top.
Ride (closeup)
I like the Victorian/steam punk-esque design. It is easy to imagine this being another noble, if hopeless, attempt to create a flying machine in the late 1800's.
Ride (closeup)
Some of Michael's work seems to be an exercise in making a simple task complicated, as with Ruby, with layer upon layer of difficult techniques and design composing a piece that, on one level, is no more than a seat. No doubt there is a method to the madness, an intended statement for the viewer to synthesize, with its space age design, on one side, composed of non-functioning, non-nonsensical, cold mechanical parts; opposing a beautiful and inviting organic side.    
laminated hardwoods, chromed and painted steel, and anodized aluminum 
I love the laminated back rest he created for it. By weaving the sections of wood through a loom like structure and then rounding it smooth, he created this beautiful OXOXO pattern. The same technique was used on the various fuel lines and cables in Gunrunner above.
Ruby (closeup)
Soapbox Racer is another kinetic piece. It was created for an actual race in San Francisco of artist built vehicles. He mentioned in the video playing in the museum that he tried to cheat (good naturally) but it turned out that the design was too flexible for his weight and, therefore, it wasn't able to complete the race anyway.
Soapbox Racer
laminated oak, plexiglass, aluminum, bicycle wheels
It is a beautiful design, regardless of its functionality. The view below is from the backside. The driver sits below a plastic bubble facing toward the pair of wheels in the front.
Soapbox Racer
Below is another of his gun series, Trainer Tricycle III. It isn't particularly subtle, but then guns aren't really a subtle subject, which is probably the point.
Trainer Tricycle III
wenge and sycamore
This final piece, Overarmed Wheelchair, is a remarkable combination of figurative and abstract sculpture as well as technical skill, design, and execution.  
Overarmed Wheelchair
laminated hardwoods, bicycle wheels
It would be interesting to hear Michael's thought process behind this piece. It looks to me like a genie rising and floating out of its proverbial bottle with the bent wood surrounding him symbolizing smoke. I wonder whether the three arms and the three wheels are designed for stability, or whether it was a symbolic choice relating to the three wishes a genie is said to grant, or both (or neither). With the generic/descriptive title, he is leaving all the interpretation to the viewer, perhaps intentionally adding to the mystery of the piece. Either way, it is a captivating combination of complexity, design, technique, and execution, like all of his work.
Overarmed Wheelchair


  1. Thanks for sharing Michael Cooper's work, Rob. The detail and complexity is very impressive. I also like the imagination shown, particularly in "Gun in Greater Perspective", "Gun in Curved Perspective", and "Ceiling Flapper."

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Chris.

  3. Mike was my sculpture instructor (before he retired from teaching), and I have had the privilege of seeing many of his works in person (and sitting in/on a few of them)! Mere photographs (nor thousands of words) cannot convey their beauty and intricacy. If you get a chance to go to his show, DO IT. :-) You will not regret it!

  4. Rob, My father Karl E. Ryerson purchased the Overarm Chair sculpture from the Stevenswood Resort, Little River Ca. in 1989. It was sitting in the lobby and he purchased it there and then. We are delighted it is out for all to enjoy on this Retrospective tour. Because my father was a Physician and WWII veteran he may have seen this piece as a statement of the strength and determination of people with spinal cord trauma. I am sure Michael will have his own special inspirations to share. I do like your "Genie" idea as well. We are honored and very happy to be able to share this work with his show. Lynne Ryerson Baumgartner

    1. Lynn, thank you for sharing this history of the piece, and for sharing it with the public. Your contribution is greatly appreciated and really adds to a truly spectacular exhibit.