Critics’ Picks

Nigel Cooke, Departure, 2009–10, oil on linen backed with sailcloth, three panels, each 86 3/5 x 76 4/5”.

Los Angeles

Nigel Cooke

Blum & Poe | Los Angeles
2727 S. La Cienega Boulevard
January 8–February 12

With this exhibition, British artist Nigel Cooke continues his interest in the end of days—apocalypse has rarely looked as lovely as it does in his canvases—but here the artist has fine-tuned his subject matter; the neon geometry and inky blackness of earlier works have been joined by pastel washes and realistic portraits in addition to the narrative of two men who appear to be hippies or wanderers. Through eleven paintings and four bronzes, Cooke unravels the obliquely poignant story of a duo caught in a tragedy from which only one emerges alive.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a large triptych made in response to, or in conversation with, a three-panel Max Beckmann painting titled Departure, 1932–35. Cooke gives his version, dated 2009–10, the same title, but whereas Beckmann portrayed a noble family setting sail, presumably to escape scenes of depravity and torture on either side, Cooke places darkness and uncertainty in the central panel, a morass of black mired with strips of gray and scratch marks. One of the characters, red-faced and delirious, throws back his head in bacchanalian glee. Depictions of the two men flank this scene, their gray-flecked beards flying in the foreboding wind of an eerie landscape.

The show as a whole is a sort of requiem, shot through with destruction and uncertain redemption, the gallery space punctuated by sculptures seemingly cobbled from the detritus of shipwreck. Three paintings depict a torrent at sea—and examine a wide range of painting’s possibilities. In one canvas, a vivid green wave erupts into a surge of white, tossing the unfortunate men in its wake. The figures are rendered in detail, beards lashing and arms thrashing, while the storm pushes into dramatic abstraction. A lone survivor emerges from the sea in three other paintings, in lush lavender, rich ocher, and moss green. The repetition of this scene mirrors the cycle of trauma, while the surreal palette is suggestive of the confusing morass of emotions that come with survival.