New York

Casey Cook

I like Casey Cook’s paintings, but the professionalism behind them makes me nervous. She seems to take painting as a closed system, an array of readymade elements from which the artist selects in order to cannily recombine them (if possible) into a new constellation of familiar components. Taken singly, every detail of Cook’s canvases recalls something in the work of one of her contemporaries or recent precursors: Kevin Appel’s weightless architectural geometry; Inka Essenhigh’s dispersed composition; John Wesley–style comic-book eroticism; a Rymanesque play with signature and date as formal elements; ’80s-style commodity discourse; and, sometimes, bravado-filled titles Julian Schnabel wouldn’t flinch at. Oddest of all, perhaps, is an evident affection for color schemes straight out of late Patrick Caulfield. And yet the paintings don’t feel eclectic; in fact, they’re strict. Cook has a style, in a very precise sense: She knows how to get a lot of elements into her work and also how to leave a vast number out, and the results add up. But the end products feel notably closed and airless, even when the compositions are open and buoyant—dungeons trying to pass for solaria.

Each painting runs the gamut from pure geometrical abstraction to figuration to typography. But in another way Cook’s means are severely circumscribed: Her application of paint is consistently flat and uninflected, her forms invariably hard-edged. (A lot of masking tape gets used up in her process.) The palette is pretty restricted too, consisting mainly of browns, beiges, and grays—colors that are subdued and tasteful to the point of blandness. Like Caulfield, Cook derives a poetics of repression from these grim tonalities. In most of the works, a stripe or rectangle of the wood-panel support has been left bare as part of the composition; this truth-to-materials tactic becomes a form of illusionism as the wood ends up looking like a collaged bit of laminate.

Cook would be an apt illustrator for middle-period Robbe-Grillet—she captures something of the strange mix of hyper-objectivity and perversity in a novel like La Maison de rendez-vous. Her intention, I take it, is to make the benign and tasteful feel kind of depraved. She indicates that in the most direct possible way, by working sliced-up but always legible bits of cartoony porn clichés into most of the paintings—stiletto-shod feet, bulbous breasts, fingers spreading labia, and the like. But even when that kind of imagery is missing, as in the nearly empty In Dedication to Wonderment, 2000, or the big triptych Whoa, 2000, in which most of the figures are animals, the paintings sustain an ominous air. The work’s ostensible, indeed nearly palpable coolness breathes an unremitting but unarticulated sense of threat. Effective, yes—but isn’t the latest neo-noir thriller concocted the same way?

Barry Schwabsky