Cynthia Cooley captures Pittsburgh then and now | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Cynthia Cooley captures Pittsburgh then and now

Somehow the complexity of the landscape is rendered simple in these paintings

Cynthia Cooley's "The Head of the Ohio"
Cynthia Cooley's "The Head of the Ohio"

Cynthia Cooley's current exhibit at Borelli-Edwards Galleries captures the essence of modern Pittsburgh while contrasting the landscapes of today with those of an earlier era. Now that the industrial soot has mostly vanished, Pittsburgh is revealed as a cosmopolitan city with breathtaking views of rivers, bridges and hills. Cooley, a nationally acclaimed painter who moved here in 1964, has the unique ability to integrate the ravages of the past with the charm of the present.

Cooley admires the work of Aaron Gorson, known a century ago for his iconic images of Pittsburgh steel mills. She is stimulated by form but also incorporates a feeling of nostalgia. The paintings in Pittsburgh Evolves: Looking Back, Looking Forward, mostly in acrylics, witness the forging of steel, follow meandering rivers, inventory rotting old mills, showcase houses perched on the hills like glittering necklaces, and investigate the world of human activity with its coal barges, conveyor chutes and plumes of curling smoke.

Viewers can easily relate to these landscapes featuring Pittsburgh as an oasis and a mecca. In "Back Channel," the artist shows two scullers navigating a stretch of the Allegheny bordered by heavy foliage. A winter scene, "Northside Survivor," shows the bare branches of a tree bent in the cold. There are views of empty city streets towered over by glass buildings. Other paintings depict Panther Hollow Lake, Troy Hill, the quaint houses of Greenfield and more.

Although we might lament vanished jobs, Cooley believes Pittsburgh is "evolving for the better." In an interview, she appeared pleased with the work of Riverlife, which works to make the rivers accessible. Cooley's best paintings involve seeing a mundane scene from an uncommon angle. She cleverly organizes the evidence she sees, then distills her image with convincing perspective and lively colors.

It is interesting how Pittsburgh casts a spell on the viewer. Somehow the complexity of the landscape is rendered simple in these paintings. In the exhibit, smaller photos of earlier paintings are hung below the newer ones to show how the landscape has evolved. Sometimes a factory turns to rust, a church is razed or the brownfields are left to go wild. But it is always the same hills, the same rivers that are left for us to enjoy.