Voluptuous girls fucking futuristic sex robots, cigar-chomping devils with diabolical grins, monsters driving slick hot rods as they puff on skinny cigarettes; the work of Chris ‘Coop’ Cooper is instantly recognisable.
His bold, comic book style, retina-sizzling colours and images seeped in 1950s Americana have made him one of the hottest talents to burst out of the ‘lowbrow’ art scene, a deviant genre he shares with Bizarre favourites Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr and Shag.
Coop’s fiendish images first found notoriety in ‘Kustom Kulture’, a modern subculture borne from the car and motorbike customising enthusiasts of 1950s America. Since then, his band posters and album covers have inspired countless outsider artists and musicians across the globe, and any inking shop worth its salt has a full set of Coop flashes in its collection, including his famous smoking devil (the image at the top of this page, which was originally commissioned by lighter manufacturer Zippo).
Walking into his Los Angeles studio, Coop’s workplace is everything you’d expect it to be: pictures of gloriously huge women adorn the walls, and a gleaming hot rod is parked in the front drive. His workshop also houses a stunning “army” of 7,000 obscure vintage toys – the result of years of incessant collecting and a trip to Japan, the only missing pieces from this enviable collection are the pieces Coop moans are “prohibitively expensive”.
Coop lives in Silverlake, California, only coming into his studio to work on pieces that can take from four days to six weeks to complete. Like many artists, when he stops working he just wants to go home and “hide under the bed”, or hunker down and watch Turner Classic Movies all day with his wife.
But even though Coop is chilled, down-to-earth and avoids the bullshit of the mainstream art world, get him on the topic of cars and he shifts gear and won’t stop talking. “LA is the fertile crescent of hot rodding,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “It’s still big here, really alive.
The neat thing is that the history of the hot rodding scene is still relatively recent, so all the first- and second-generation guys are still here, still walking around and driving the incredible cars they built.
One of the things that appeals to me as an artist is that the whole essence of hot rodding is taking a mass-produced item, pulling it apart, then rebuilding it and making it better.You’re making it into an individual statement – and that’s art. “I have many friends who work as automotive painters, who build cars professionally. I look at their work, and I think they’re incredible artists.
The level of technical proficiency – it just blows my mind. Think about a beautifully finished, completely over-the-top lowrider Chevy – now if you put that in the middle of a gallery, it would be a stunning piece of art, and people are starting to come around to that idea. But most people in the fine arts world don’t see that. They see things like that as coming from uneducated people.”
Starting out Coop’s art grew from his humble beginnings in Oklahoma – the heart of middle America – where, as a kid, he was “really into comics and MAD magazine”. By 1984 he was knocking out posters for local bands, taking inspiration from artists such as Robert Williams, the ‘father of lowbrow art’ and pioneer of underground comics. Then, in 1988, Coop moved to California and his whole life changed.
“As soon as I relocated to California, I immediately felt at home,” he says. “Oklahoma isn’t really a place to be a weirdo. By contrast, Los Angeles is the American capital of weirdness.”
And while the City Of Angels is often criticised as being a cultural vacuum populated by wannabe actors and porn stars, Coop proudly describes himself as an “LA artist”. “People love to bash on LA, but I love it,” he says. “I adore the city and the connection it has to the history of film-making, not to mention the rich local art history that not a lot of people realise exists. You have people like Ed Ruscha (legendary painter, photographer and pop artist) living here. I really think Ed is one of the greatest living American artists; his work is all about the city of Los Angeles, and is informed by the experience of living here for most of his life.
I know that I certainly couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world now.”
Once settled in LA, Coop started his professional career with a few small jobs for independent records labels and local
gigs (including a few flyers for fellow Okie weirdos The Flaming Lips), before hooking up with the Sympathy For The Record Industry record label. Working with established graphic artist Frank Kozik, he started to build his fanbase designing sleeves and gig posters.
But even though his career has brought him fame and fortune, is Coop bothered that he missed out on art school and the doors it can open for you? “Nah,” he laughs. “At the time, I didn’t have any interest in going down that route. I didn’t think I’d get what I wanted out of it. In retrospect, I’m happy I didn’t.
“The idea of going to art school is to develop technical skills and learn how to do all these things I wanted to do. But art schools don’t provide that any more. Instead, they provide four years of playtime for rich kids – and I wasn’t a rich kid, so I didn’t have that luxury. As far as educating myself in art history goes, I just went out and did it under my own steam.
And I learned all about the skills I wanted to master by just by doing them.”
Surprisingly, while Coop’s devil girls and oversized lovelies are often engaged in eye-watering wantonness, what has caused the most fuss with America’s moral guardians
is the fact his girls are curvaceous, defiant and confident, shirking the ‘size zero’ culture most obvious in the Sunshine State he calls home.
“My female fans appreciate that I depict women who aren’t stick-thin as hot and sexy and beautiful,” says Coop. “Whenever I do a personal appearance, I always have these
girls coming up to me who are plump and voluptuous, who thank me for drawing women that look like them. They love me for it.”
“Now I’m meeting a lot of people who look like the women I draw. Now I’ve started doing some photography, I’m finding more of these girls are just showing up. It’s almost like I’m conjuring them somehow. But I love women – I’m fascinated by them, I’m obsessed with them, and my work revolves around them.”
Not surprisingly for a man who made a career from doodling El Diablo, Coop is a member of the Church Of Satan and enjoyed a close relationship with the organisation’s late founder, Anton LaVey. “I was lucky enough to become good friends with him,” he smiles. “He was a big influence on me – just his philosophy, sense of humour and take on the world. I really treasured our friendship. Not a day goes by that I don’t see something or read something I’d like to tell him about, share with him… it’s a real shame.”
And the pair were such good friends that LaVey even made Coop and his wife priests. “Anton told me, ‘What you’re doing with your work and your life is Satanic,’ and that’s why he made me a priest,” Coop says. “I thought that was a terrific honour. But I don’t have to run around in a cape and scare people or anything.”
Coop stopped designing rock posters after finding that too many sleazy music business types were selling off his pieces to collectors before the bands even had a chance to see them. Now he concentrates on his fine art work, including a collection of huge canvases on display in his studio: Magneto, and his series Atari Girl (opposite, top). They feature his beloved devil girls in pseudo-advertisements for Hunt Magnetos (gizmos for engine ignition systems), and videogames company Atari, complete with a joystick in the girl’s crotch.
After our interview, I hang out in Coop’s studio for a few hours. There are boxes of Godzilla toys stacked against one wall, and an impressive trainer collection to admire. Full of inspiring visual ephemera and idiosyncratic knick-knacks, his studio is a hard place to leave. Finally, Coops gives me a preview of his current project – an image for Japanese punk Ken Yokoyama – and then it’s time to call it a day. We say our goodbyes and Coop jumps on his hot rod, honks his horn and burns off into the sunset.
Check out Coopstuff.com and Positiveapeindex.blogspot.com for more on our man
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