Barrie Cooke

In these paintings of untouched places, Barrie Cooke travels light. With Patterson’s Lakes II, 1989, he upends a watery plain and has it hang there at an angle of 90 degrees to the earth. The place has been hoisted upright, lakes and all, by the picture plane, which appears to have a magical civil engineering capability. But by lifting hard, the picture plane loses its effortlessly vertical air. Balancing there, it becomes as much a puzzle as the sight of the expanse it has upended.

One way to escape the civic pull of horizontals and verticals is simply to collapse them into each other. If the earth is upright, then the picture plane, being at 90 degrees to it like the gallery wall, cannot be on the same plane. But in these works, it is. Verticals lose their footing and the world spins. The image settles down again, this time as an aerial view of a flat landscape. Because the washes look as thin as water and there are virtually no drips, the painting looks to have been done on the floor. Now it is the landscape that is doing the pulling, turning the picture plane until it is horizontal, and parallel to what lies below. Being weightless, the picture plane doesn’t give in to the pull; it floats. But so, too, do the lakes which are suspended just above the ground. Beneath them the sky can be made out, a lighter blue; relocating everything again, it suspends the whole landscape, with its chalky earth, in mid air.

This reduction of the three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional condition seems at first to make gravity seem more real, not less. It pulls at us, and the air in between . Cooke does manage to naturalize the picture plane and the image by making the former gravitate toward the latter, but this often results in an image of a dematerialized nature, so that the problem gets transposed, not solved. Mine Tailings—Clutha Valley, 1989, shows heaped-up hills rising, above the end of a lake. It is balanced dangerously between gravity and the pull of the picture plane, which, as weightless as a color or a thought, is thus locked into the pull of things. The locking, however, is two-way; nature loses its weight. The price of a naturalized picture plane would appear to be a levitating landscape.

Not always. In the wonderful Tekapo Lake Painting II, 1989, an outsized sky-blue lake has been poured from above into the pictorial space—a vast, yet strangely thin container.The horizontal body of water in the distance below a line of mountains swerves forward and downwards while staying dead Oat. Though the lake is still, the viewer, thrown off balance as ever, cannot surface. The pull of the watery depths comes to the weightless surface of the lake, held there by the force of the erect picture plane. There is a lightness about Cooke’s paintings that never ceases to defy gravity.

Conor Joyce