Pittsburgh has been called the Paris of Appalachia. But if you’ve never thought of Pittsburgh as the Grand Canyon of Appalachia, then let Douglas Cooper’s new works persuade you.
Douglas Cooper: Graphic Pittsburgh is an exhibit at Concept Art Gallery consisting of 11 new panoramic charcoal sketches of the city by the ’Burgh-bred artist and Carnegie Mellon University professor of architecture. Typical of Cooper, they are large in scale and very rich in detail — 48-by-60-inches and larger. A single piece takes him about one month to complete.
Traditionally, Cooper’s treatment of the city’s landscapes themselves was his focus. However, in Graphic Pittsburgh, it’s a new attention to the interstitial liveliness of the city that has inspired him. In fact, he calls these latest pieces, which are always drawn from an uphill-downhill perspective, a “voyeur’s delight.”
“The theme of most of the drawings in this show is backyards and sidewalks,” Cooper said at the exhibition’s opening night, in December. Indeed, anyone familiar with his work will recognize right away that the difference between these and previous works is a population to fill the city’s spaces. Women fill the windows of houses in Oakland, children play outside, and men sit in lawn chairs barbecuing in their backyards on Polish Hill.
Some of the pieces were inspired by Cooper’s youth, such as “Backyards of Forbes Field,” which comes straight from his childhood in Oakland, where he would watch from his porch as Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Doc Ellis walked into the old ballpark. Forbes Field is full for a game, the streets are filled with traffic and, in the foreground, a man mows his lawn. Cooper’s previous work hasn’t portrayed such an active community.
Yet the landscapes Cooper draws remain just as rich. Speaking with him about his love of Pittsburgh’s hills and valleys, you might hear him voice his comparison of the region to the Grand Canyon. Everyone sees Pittsburgh as part of the Appalachian mountain range, but Cooper says a better way to think of Pittsburgh’s geography is in terms of the ancient process of its rivers cutting through prehistoric plateaus. In his drawings, the foregrounds are bowed, the mid-grounds elevated, and the backgrounds laid-back to permit him to include as much of the scenery as possible. This is so that the “voyeur” of the scene can feel like he’s standing on top of the Grand Canyon, looking out over the gorges. Before remembering that it’s Herron Avenue.