New Orleans artist Anita Cooke says there’s no narrative to her works, which are large collages of paint and reconfigured canvas. But these “sewn constructions,” as she calls them, are not purely abstract either. Once you get behind her process, it’s easy to find the thread, and for New Orleanians in touch with their city’s recent history, their revelations can be especially powerful.  

“The whole meaning of my work is in the process,” says Cooke. “The process is the story. I make this thing, then tear it all up, then re-create it and make something new from the pieces. That happens everywhere – in nature, in cities – but usually over a long period of time. With Katrina, it happened to New Orleans all at once.”

Cooke calls her process “dimensional patterning.” She starts by smearing an immense amount of paint at random across dropcloths. These kaleidoscopic canvases are then cut, pierced, folded, sewn and glued into long, unruly bands of paint-heavy fabric compressed together and mounted to backing. Only a small fraction of the paint used in this process is actually visible at the end, but it all contributes to a laden, intricate feel of the finished piece. Density, the title of Cooke’s latest exhibition, is in fact the operative word for the energy behind her work.   

“Think about a big field, at Woodstock or Jazz Fest, and then how it changes when it’s filled,” Cooke says. “There’s energy there – that power, it transforms the space, and it gives it a history, too.”

Originally from Ohio, Cooke grew up in a suburb she remembers today as feeling new, clean and highly functional. She came to New Orleans in the early 1980s for what was supposed to be a brief stop on a cross-country trip, but she became entranced with how different the city felt from her hometown. She never left.

Today, her dimensional patterning produces undulating surfaces, jumbles of grids, mazes, bundles and stacks that look erratic but still feel soothingly organic. They invite you to peer in and study their knotty currents. Some pieces appear weathered, rusty and crumbling while others are bright and festive, reflecting two sides of her experience with New Orleans.  

“There’s a certain dialogue even without making a picture of it,” she says.

Anita Cooke

See Density at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery from Nov. 1-30.