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The Copley Exhibit at The Menil Is Filled With Wonderful Surprises

Ignorance may not really be bliss, but it can sometimes take you to it. When I walked into the exhibition “William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY,” at The Menil Collection, curated by Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art, I was in a state of the most complete CPLY (that’s the way he signed his work) ignorance imaginable. By the time I left, I was in what can only be called a state of bliss.

Since I wasn’t assigned to review the show, I waited a whole week after it opened to go see it. Because I knew I wasn’t going to like it. I didn’t know why, I just knew. I’d never heard of Copley before I read the exhibition announcement; I’d never seen any of his work that I knew of; and I hadn’t devoted even a minute to learning anything about him. (I have learned a little since, but not till after this review was written, by design.)

As it turned out — I’m sure you’ve guessed by now — once I saw the work, I loved it. I loved the installation; I loved the prickly tingle of shock, surprise and pleasure that came from seeing something completely unexpected, utterly new (to me, at least) and delightful; I loved looking without the freight of knowledge.

Going to an exhibition with no knowledge of the art on show, and no preconceptions (I won’t count my preconceived certainty of dislike, since it didn’t last), can be an experience of exhilarating freedom, especially when there’s stuff going on that’s lively and compelling enough to keep your eye, and your brain, engaged. It’s an all-too-rare opportunity to make spontaneous connections (even though they may not hold up after longer viewing), to view the new through the lens of what you do know, and to draw meanings for yourself that seem important at the moment (whether or not they’re the meanings the artist intended). In other words, to have a lively, amusing, intimate — maybe even personally profound — interaction with art and artist as an equal: He doesn’t know me; I don’t know him; it’s just the two of us and the art. Wow, what fun and how unexpected.

For me the interaction and the fun started right up front, in the corridor outside the exhibition galleries, where Copley’s My Father Plays Piano in a House of Ill Repute, from 1966, is hung. It’s a huge canvas, painted in black and white, almost drawing-like and thoroughly cartoonish, with lots of squiggly lines and a naked lady floating on the right (clearly there’s something libidinal going on in much of Copley’s work; he was married six times).

The moment I saw it I thought of Matisse. Not that I have any reason to think that Copley had Matisse in mind. But his painting has a printed-fabric quality that sparked visions of the many fabrics in Matisse, who came from a family of weavers: Note how important fabrics are in his paintings the next time you see them. And Copley’s naked lady, all “S” curvy, took me to Matisse’s odalisques.

Inside the galleries, looking at some of the street scenes from the 1950s, I thought of Stuart Davis in his early Paris days. Across the room, I spied Irma la Douce in Paris Blue (2 bis rue Férou), 1947, trying to be fetching in a doorway. And the stripped stockings on the legs of many of Copley’s sexy ladies seemed like an erotic twist on the stripped tigers, the strip-wearing football players, even the occasional stripped stockings, that Henri Rousseau painted with a similarly knowing naiveté. He even gave a nod to Manet (Libération sur l’herbe, 1955). Clearly Copley must have spent time in Paris, or at least time looking at Parisian art — right away a checkmark in his favor in my book.

References to Surrealist painters abound — hence the fit for this show at the Menil: a Magritte-like portrait of Marcel Duchamp (Portrait of Marcel, 1951); a direct addressing of Duchamp’s own late work (The Bride and the Groom Stripped Bare by Each Other, Even, 1963); a Max Ernst monster, with Henry Darger girls (Children of Dynosaurus, 1948); a painting (Colored People, 1964) so like one of the Menil’s own Victor Brauners — Small Morphology (Petite morphologie I), 1934 — it could almost be a copy, only with naked women instead of naked men.

I mention these connections not to detract from Copley’s originality (a concept that’s an over-touted myth in any case). Recently I read a quote from John Baldessari, another Los Angeles artist (did I mention that Copley spent his early art days in L.A.?): “Art comes from art.” You learn to write by reading the best writing of those who wrote before you, and then trying for yourself — not so much the mechanics as the elusive part, style. Likewise with painting. Copley looked at his predecessors, learned and then found his own original self. (Which is an anti-ignorance argument; I do see the contradiction.)

Viewing Copley’s work, I was also reminded of a long-gone relative who “undressed all the women with his eyes.” The description made quite an impression on me as a child. (I learned to do it myself later on, only with guys.) I think Copley may have done that, too. The objects of our desires were different, but there’s something in common (as well as just plain common, I suppose) that we share. Call it lust. Indeed, lust courses through the galleries. One painting is even titled “Trust Lust” (1988). Which accounts for the cautionary notice at the entrance: cautionary at the door; missionary inside.

But maybe it’s also a self-deprecating humor in the work, as well as Francophilia and lust, that I identify with. And a bit of befuddled uncertainty. Copley gives us none of the religiosity of Rothko or the cerebral nature of Barnett Newman, to name a couple of the high-priest exhibitions we’ve seen lately. He’s just devilishly blundering through.

Which is the way I felt as I toured the show. I saw lots of French references in Copley because that’s the way my eye-brain coordination works. You may see different things. No problem. That’s good. And we may both be wrong. All these spontaneous responses and amateur’s references (maybe out of the ballpark; certainly off the wall) may even open me up to snickers and ridicule. But in a Trumpian act of art reviewer hubris, I’ll just say: “I don’t care.” Vive l’amateur. I think Copley would concur.

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It’s here that I intended to end the free association and share a little actual learning about Copley. Not much: just enough to be dangerous. But I’ve decided not to. What a joy-kill. You can learn all the facts you need for yourself, if you want them, from the web, or from the brochure they give free at the door. You may decide to read that first, but I recommend against it. Let your eyes run wild, and wait till you get home to find out if you were right.

Why I liked the show so much still mystifies me a little. Maybe part of it was that I’d just finished a lovely alfresco lunch with friends at Bistro Menil. Maybe my stars were all aligned. Or maybe what I think I’ll like isn’t really a reliable indicator. My untutored response as I looked was: color and fun; biting satire and dark humor; something erotic, something serious, something sinister; weird, weirdly wonderful, just plain wonderful. And finally, voilà: Bliss.

Now let me go see if I got it right.

“William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY”
Through July 24. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, www.menil.org.

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