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Robert Cooper 

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Copyright Robert Cooper, 2002

'Caramia': San Rafael painter Bob Cooper specializes in family portraits of our closest relatives.

Prehensile Tales

On intelligent design, Bigfoot, Bob Cooper and our nearest ancestors

By Matt Pamatmat

The religious right's recent move to advance the theory of intelligent design, a fancy way of saying "creationism," demonstrates that, left or right, we humans are still deeply fascinated by our closest relatives, the great apes. One camp is comfortable with the fact that we descended from the trees and evolved into the iPod-wearing, Starbucks-drinking curious creatures we are today; the other camp feels strongly threatened by the theory of evolution for the giant monkey wrench it throws into the entire machinery of Judeo-Christian theology and explanation.

Bob Cooper, a man with an average name who is anything but average, shares the interest in this issue. A North Bay painter, Cooper specializes in realistic, haunting and noble portraits of the great apes: Pongo pygmaeus, Gorilla gorilla, Pan troglodytes. We know them as orangutans, gorillas and chimps. Seated in the spare, industrial San Rafael space where his paintings recently exhibited, Cooper says, "The bonobos remind me most of early humans."

Cicero described the ape as "a most ill-favoured beast," but in Cooper's eye they are magnificent, complex, diverse and regal. All of his paintings have elaborate gold frames, as if each painting was an expensive family portrait meant to be passed down for posterity and respectful remembrance. Unfortunately, this isn't far off the mark. Environmental change and degradation, the so-called bush meat trade and exploitation and abuse in the entertainment industry have lowered the great apes' numbers to endangered levels. Cooper's detailed, moody portraits may, one day, be all that are left of these dignified, creepily humanesque animals.


Apes, as part of pop culture, are always around us, like glittering eyes watching from the dense foliage. We are, after all--despite the recent talk of intelligent design--most likely evolved from earlier primates, and may, as some believe, carry "genetic memory" from our previous incarnations. In the surreal 1981 film Altered States, William Hurt seeks to re-experience the very first moment of the very first Self. But even armed as he is with a Ph.D., sensory deprivation and hallucinogens, he only gets as far back as the Homo erectus–like hominid. Wild-eyed, naked and fur-covered, he terrorizes a local zoo, ends up in jail and majorly freaks out his anthropologist wife. In perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Bigfoot camp, Hurt at one point takes a midnight shower and has his mind blown as he looks down and sees giant, hairy, handlike feet instead of his normal human ones.

Despite the absurdity of the claim, Bigfoot believers still maintain he/she/it is out there somewhere, an overgrown missing link in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Will Self's 1997 novel Great Apes tells the darkly funny tale of chimps comfortably living in modern English society, where (what we call) incest is nonchalant, almost casual. There's Michael Crichton's goofy novel Congo, about a remote group of diamond-hustling gorillas, and of course the famous beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(I was happily showing the latter G-rated film to my infant son, when my wife pointed out that there is an extremely violent scene once the early humans figure out, thanks to the assistance of the enigmatic, obsidian monolith, that they can use tapir bones as weaponry. Ah, the quotes from a marriage: "I don't want my baby watching one ape beat another to death with a bone!" Due to my fascination with our distant relatives, I hadn't looked at it that way; perhaps my son is a little young for a Kubrickian lesson in anthropology. For now, there's the Human Evolution Coloring Book.)

While other people were debating the merits of Tim Burton's remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this summer, I was lamenting a lachrymose tidbit Cooper told me. Burton's 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes features a chimpanzee opposite Marky Mark, who, after filming, ended up as part of a Texas sideshow in a facility with maggots writhing on the floor, one minute on top of the world, the next somewhere far more sinister.

Many people think of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for his films Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but he also wrote the strange film Human Nature, about a man raised in the wild who tries, with mixed results, to acclimate to society's mores and metaphysics. The ironic joke is that human society may be little more than an elaborate, technological, theological monkeydom. When we see how primal humanity can be, how brutal and base--but also how compassionate and tender--it makes a strong case for how close we still are to those sheltering trees we ventured out of. At the same time, of course, there are crucial differences between humanity and great apes, or else we would be the ones in zoos, with purple-assed baboons staring curiously at us.


Southern writer Harry Crews called writers "sedentary apes." Humans are far from chimps, and yet not far at all. There is still something of that primal simian in us despite our cell phones, iPods and SUVs, despite the McMansions we build, the elaborate systems we create and the fever pitch our postmodern lives reach. When taking in a weekday afternoon matinee of Fight Club in 1996, I noticed that despite the huge theater, low attendance and ample seating, we moviegoers had grouped together, even though we could have sat anywhere and still had good seats and plenty of elbow room; it was the mountain gorilla effect. Within us all is that small, serious bonobo, eyes agleam in the wilderness of the early 21st century.

Besides being human and having some kind of ethnic or religious or lifestyle identification, we are, of course, primates. "Monkeys have tails, apes do not," Bob Cooper reminds me as we chat. Some human babies are born with small tails, which are usually removed and disposed of without much conversation. I have a cousin who was born with a webbed hand, something he wasn't proud of and so had "corrected." A friend shared a house with a couple in Rohnert Park whose daughter had an abnormally hairy back. It is as if nature has Homo sapiens pretty much nailed, but occasionally something else slips through.

Cooper's work is not just reducible to a curio or passing interest; he has hit upon something, some kind of thread running through our very core. In a way, Cooper's paintings, with their ornate frames and focus on realism, are like looking into funhouse mirrors.

View Bob Cooper's great apes portraits at

From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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