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ART REVIEW

Toying with wood, metal — and guns

Michael Cooper crisscrossed hardwoods to form “Ruby.’’

Michael Chase

Michael Cooper crisscrossed hardwoods to form “Ruby.’’

BROCKTON - Take a guy who loves hot rods, blend him with a guy who spends hours in his woodworking shop, and purify the mix with an artist’s imagination and obsession with technique, and you’ve got Michael Cooper.

The works in “Michael Cooper: A Sculptural Odyssey, 1968-2011,’’ up at the Fuller Craft Museum, resemble giant toys fashioned from wood and metal. They’re fantastical, visually alluring, and sometimes mind-bendingly complex in their making. Yet some of them are quite dark.

Michael Chase

Michael Cooper’s “Trainer Tricycle III ’’ has the barrel of a pistol under the seat.

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The most audacious piece in the show, “How the West Was Won, How the West Was Lost,’’ is an amalgamation of toys that are also icons of masculinity and power. The base looks like a hot rod: four wheels that turn, pistons, and the suggestion of a sleek chassis. But there’s a saddle, too, upon which perches a toy oil derrick, drilling. Near the center, an oversize wooden cowboy boot holds the stock of a giant chrome pistol, which pivots and takes aim, just at the head level of most adult viewers.

Cooper dates this piece from 1977 to the present; he could probably tinker with it forever, it has so many moving parts. It captivates with its whizz-bang gimmickry and its exquisite craftsmanship. The point, which arises as a theme throughout this artist’s career, is that the dreams that toys nurture in boys (more than girls) can lead to the downfall and destruction of men, and of society and the environment.

In the same vein, “Trainer Tricycle III’’ is one of a series of carved wooden trikes Cooper has made that sports the barrel of a huge pistol just beneath the seat, taking aim from below the handlebars. The tricycle itself is built to scale; only the gun is oversize, but it fits neatly enough into the frame of the tricycle that you might not see it at first. When you do catch sight of it, you may shudder.

These ideas date to the artist’s youth. In a video that screens as part of the exhibit, he recalls shooting his pellet gun at a bird, and being surprised and horrified when the bird died. Later, Cooper was clerking at his father’s grocery store when a robber held him up at gunpoint. Toy and weapon come together in the strange cocktail of threat and seduction in his sculptural guns, such as “Gun in Curved Perspective I,’’ a gorgeous, big wooden pistol shimmering in lines made from laminated mahogany and ash. The gun twists and grows, nearly alive in its deathly intent, and looking like something from a Salvador Dalí painting.

Cooper was born in 1943 and grew up in the car culture of Lodi, Calif., in the 1950s and ’60s - “American Graffiti’’ land. In the video, he remembers getting hold of a Model A when he was a teenager and cutting it up to make a crude hot rod. After he went to art school, he entered the San Francisco Artists’ Soapbox Derby in 1975. The “Soapbox Racer’’ that he competed in is on view, suspended high along a wall as if taking flight during a turn. It’s a long, fluid skeleton of a chassis fashioned from laminated oak, looping like spaghetti around bicycle wheels - beautiful to behold. Cooper says in the video that during the race he could feel the vehicle adjusting as it moved, and that his seat scraped the road. Now it’s a museum piece.

“Gunrunner’’ is a much more complicated racer, made more than 30 years later. It’s built entirely from wood. Cooper achieves his trademark curves with lamination: He layers wood, glues it, and cuts it into poles, which he can bend and brace in place until the glue dries. This piece is a tight, dense elegant construction of curvilinear lines - pipes, pistons, horns, and, amid all the mechanical coils at the center, a rifle.

The artist appears to have taken a cue from his cars for his series of chairs, which all appear to be on the verge of becoming mobile. “Captain’s Chair,’’ one of Cooper’s earlier wooden chairs, is comically peg-legged with wheels. He followed that with “Armed Chair,’’ another vehicle, sporting human arms sculpted on either side of the seat. The hands close in fists that clutch the barrels of pistols, the butts of which loop down into wheels.

“Ruby’’ is a more recent work, a somewhat bloated flight of fancy made with dazzling technique. His laminated hardwoods crisscross the seat in jazzy patterns. The back is made of undulant fern fronds, also crafted from wood, and a snake form. Flying from beneath the seat are chrome pistons and a winglike structure of anodized aluminum. This piece feels overdone, as if the artist is piling everything he knows into too limiting a form, or as if his technical wizardry has outpaced his imagination.

Despite the predominance of guns, not every piece here is cautionary. Some are just giggly delights. All are feats of technique. And all display a child’s unabashed enthusiasm for fun, and an artist’s passion for his craft.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.
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