Born in New York in 1943, Ron Cooper grew up in Ojai, California, before attending the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles from 1963 to ‘65, where his life-long friendships with Larry Bell, Ken Price and Ed Ruscha among others were formed.
Cooper ( the man is his brand) is a direct product of the Zeitgeist of the 1960’s that forever changed the way we look at art and the world.
His involvement in the early Venice Beach scene, with its crossover appeal that brought artists, filmmakers and musicians into a confluence of energy that often burned too fast, too bright and ultimately destroyed several incredibly talented souls, is the root of the work he continues to make.
Cooper’s work evolved out of Southern California’s “Light and Space” and “Finish Fetish” movements of the mid-1960s and he is recognized as a pivotal artist of that moment with his Light Traps and Vertical Bars. His resurrection of these early forms four decades later continues to earn him critical acclaim and assures him his place in the annals of Art History.
Clearly Cooper’s high energy, curiosity and continued productivity as an artist is connected to his ongoing exploration of transformative experience.
“The criteria for me for successful art is that it transforms your experience in some way. It’s got to have that ‘A-ha’ moment, if it does, then it’s a successful piece of art,” he explains.
He adds that he takes artistic license with regards to both art and mezcal.
In Taos, where he has lived since the early 70’s, joining the exodus from Venice Beach that included Bell, Price and Dennis Hopper, Ron Cooper has continued to push the boundaries of art to include Del Maguey, the line of mezcal he’s been producing in Oaxaca for the past twenty years. Cooper has perhaps single handedly revived the ancient art of mescal distillation with his involvement in the production of mezcal in several Zapotec villages. Mezcal, in turn, with its mythic history, has captured the imaginations of the culinary and liquor industries internationally, and for the fourth year in a row, Cooper’s Del Maguey has been nominated for the esteemed James Beard Award.
The unlikely journey from artist to mezcal producer began in 1970 at Riko Mizuno’s Gallery on La Cienega after a show. After a discussion about the Pan-American Highway, he and two friends, Jim Ganzer and Robbie Dick, packed a VW van complete with surfboards piled on the roof, and headed south. Four months later they reached Panama but on route they discovered the village Cooper and his mezcal, now call home. Teotitlan del Valle.
For Cooper, this project—producing a line of mezcal imported into the United States under the name Del Maguey, in bottles with labels designed by the late Ken Price, is no less an artwork than any of his previous and current creations. Partaking in the ritual of sipping mezcal with Ron Cooper, it becomes quickly apparent this is a sacred rite. Unlike tequila shots, mezcal is traditionally sipped from little clay copitas. The liquor is subtle and slightly smoky and the fragrant undertones dependent on what is used in the still itself. I tasted some fruit that had been added to one batch and removed after the process, and it was an extraordinary delicacy.
Spending a third of the year in Oaxaca for the past two decades, living with the Zapotec people and immersing himself in their culture, has over time, inspired Cooper to create a series of work based on the tradition of dichos. colloquial sayings that are part of the Spanish language and culture. Using minimal found materials including plastic bottles that are hand painted with dichos and mounted on an assortment of plates and trays, mostly plastic, some of the bottles contain things like dried grass or agave, some have bugs and bits of dried plant matter glued to them.
“I stole them,” he says guilelessly, when asked about the dichos that he’s used for this body of curious work.
These sayings and proverbs are far removed from the more formal (and recognizable) dichos common to Hispania and are in fact, particular to the Zapotec villagers with whom he spends his time while in Oaxaca. These pieces resonate with the same ironic humour as his famed “portrait” series; sculptural vessels on high stands.
Vessels are a recurring theme in Cooper’s oeuvre, whether they contain light or plant matter, or simply empty, negative space, these containers have an almost metaphysical appeal that goes beyond intellectual or conceptual understanding. And this I think is Cooper’s true gift; the innate ability to be absolutely in the moment with the constant awareness that life itself is a mere flicker of light burning fast and bright. Then gone.
These humble vessels of language and decay, battered, broken, rolled over and rendered ambiguous and enigmatic by time and the elements; serve to remind, that we too, reside in impermanent containers no matter how much we might attempt to cosmetically or otherwise, alter that reality.
On one piece hanging on the wall of Cooper’s Oaxaca studio, a skeleton holds a bottle and the words Venga A Mi Tierra which translates to “come to my land, are written alongside. The bottle held by the figure reads “Sabor que Nace.” Flavor that is born.
“You know they say you don’t find mezcal,” Cooper tells me in parting, “mezcal finds you.”
The same can be said for art.
And a life well lived.
An exhibition of Ron Coopers dichos pieces, “Irony and Enigma,” opens today at 203 Fine Art in Taos. Visit their link below for details. The show will hang through May.
Portrait of Ron Cooper from Taos Portraits by Paul O’Connor.
Other photographs of Ron in Oaxaca from the artist’s personal collection.