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Stair Master

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In an automobile-based culture with fewer and fewer sidewalks, Pittsburgh alone, even among hilly cities, has a vast network of ascendant concrete footpaths that aspire to the heavens, or at least Stanton Heights. A hybrid of architecture, landscape architecture and civil infrastructure that is at once mundane and fantastic, these paths are only beginning to receive well-deserved attention and appreciation.

 

The Steps of Pittsburgh, a wonderful new book by Bob Regan with photos by Tim Fabian, documents them admirably in maps and photos. However, in Doug Cooper's recent drawings (an exhibition of which opens from 6-8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 9, at Concept Gallery, in Regent Square) the steps reach beyond Pittsburgh's skyward neighborhoods, and to a new artistic plateau.

 

Cooper (my senior colleague on the architecture faculty at Carnegie Mellon University) is an internationally acclaimed perspectivist with large commissioned murals in Frankfurt and Rome, as well as New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. Pittsburgh is not his limitation, but rather his inspiration. The overseas works are compelling, but something about the Pittsburgh drawings captures an especially transcendent essence of the place.

 

At CMU and in his books, Cooper teaches techniques of one- and two-point perspective, so that budding architects might better capture a truthful representation of what the eye sees. But art, as Picasso said, "is a lie that makes us realize a greater truth."  And in these new images Cooper captures some greater visual truths about Pittsburgh through masterful fibbery about the rules of perspective drawing.

 

"Vision is utterly tied up with moving and engaging the space or spaces where you are," Cooper explains. So, like Picasso ... whose early Cubist works sought to create a sense of motion around, say, a still life ... Cooper seeks to capture in two dimensions the down-and-up vicissitudes of the stairs of Pittsburgh's many hillsides. "An identifiable foregound, an identifiable background, and a sense of meandering between the two," he says.  

 

He makes it sound so simple. But both the Pittsburgh landscape and Cooper's depictions of it are delightfully complex. In one view on Yoder Street in Greenfield (titles were being finalized at the time of writing), the step's risers themselves rest, just slightly off-kilter, in the front of the image toward the left, where a landing meets the small front porch of a pitched-roof clapboard house. The lights are on. The door is open. You could almost walk in, albeit angling yourself slightly to the left as surely all those hillside houses must do to compensate.  

 

Meanwhile, the stairs make a switchback in an impossible tangle down to the right, from which direction a chubby bald guy dutifully ascends. The downward slope to a couple of above-ground pools seems impossibly precarious, and yet a little to the left it seems also to slope back upward. A promontory of Oakland pushes forward from the distance, dividing Panther Hollow from the Mon Valley

 

It's the knowing and calculated displacements of orthogonal lines ... distortions in the grid of proper perspective ... that convey the sense of folding, surging and twisting in the Pittsburgh landscape. With stairs, houses, telephone wires and the land itself participating, the city becomes a familiarly chaotic dance of unlikely topography.

 

And it's a dance that wants to hold your hand. The drawings are black and white, but the sensitivity to light and texture makes them especially tactile. For Cooper, "Vision is built upon and intimately tied together with the sense of touch." 

 

The other essential characteristic of Cooper's drawings is the persistence of historical Pittsburgh. The familiar landscapes are made more so by the presence of steel mills, trolley cars and Forbes Field. "Diulius Way without Forbes Field is a dull subject," he allows. "My memory is just so tied up with things that used to be there."

 

So Cooper bends the rules of time as much as he does those of linear perspective.  These devices make his work not simply beautiful but also authentic.

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