The Violent Sublime of Wanda Koop’s Paintings

LOS ANGELES — “I use color like an opera singer,” Wanda Koop remarked at a press preview for her exhibition at Night Gallery, Objects of Interest. “I use it to shatter the glass.” The phrase highlights the competing presences in Koop’s work: an unexpected humor infuses her grand, operatic landscapes, obscuring the persistent violence that might escape a first glance. Recent work by Koop, whose family emigrated from Ukraine, draws from her experience of Russia’s current war on Ukraine — as seen via media from her home in Canada. Across large, bright canvases, war is mediated by distance and technology. Images of communications satellites appear alongside chilly vistas inspired by Koop’s family’s Ukrainian hometown, interpolated by blurred neon panels that resemble fragments of television screens. Koop’s brush both illuminates and conceals expressions of power, alternately shrouding the violence against her ancestral country beneath pretty surfaces and rendering them starkly visible.

Images of the moon manifest across the exhibition, a graphic emblem that comes to evoke the ways distant technologies structure human experience. Near the gallery’s entrance, Koop’s four-panel Objects of Interest series (2023) positions the Earth’s only natural satellite alongside its manmade equivalents. A glossy, illuminated moon floats against a darkened sky, paired, in the adjacent canvas, with a military communications satellite that resembles those produced by private company Solstar in collaboration with the United States Department of Air Force. “Ukrainian Quartet – Moon” (2023) suggests the potentially violent usages of such satellites; the moon appears directly above a destroyed Orthodox church or palace, its domes and walls seen mid-collapse. Filtered through Koop’s brush, these ominous sights feel almost dreamlike, transformed into eerie subjects of awe. 

Koop’s more explicit ruminations on war combine picturesque landscapes with wry humor. In “Ukrainian Quartet – Bridge” (2023), pearly gradations of color form a tranquil sea and sky. Only upon closer inspection does the image reveal its hidden brutality, and even then it maintains a peaceful, balanced composition: in the center, an orange explosion blooms, its candle-shaped cloud issuing gray smoke across the canvas. Elsewhere, gunshots and bombs resemble wildflowers: The Bouquet series (2023) features a set of neon compositions striated by cruciform grids, their bright backgrounds splattered with bullet holes painted to look like daisies or daffodils. (Koop says this work was inspired by a 1997 pilgrimage to her grandmother’s grave in a Ukrainian cemetery, where most of the dead are victims of the Russian Revolution.) Its subject matter sharply contrasts with its punny, vibrant styling, gesturing toward a deeper problem: How can artistic representations of violence not minimize it? 

Koop takes the long view. Vast expanses of negative space dominate her sparse canvases:. Their stretches of sky and sea dwarf the eccentricities of human experience, even those that may bring about our end. Explosions look like flickering torches, and power plants blend seamlessly with beachside towns. The work flirts with flippancy, but this may be the point: Koop’s paintings slyly illuminate the tension between violence and its endless reproduction in imagery, a gulf between representation and reality that is both privileged and painful.  

Objects of Interest continues at Night Gallery (2050 Imperial Street, Downtown, Los Angeles) through March 9. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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