Nigel Cooke

Stuart Shave Modern Art

As painting’s capacity to produce credible representations of reality became increasingly questionable, artists engaged with landscape tended to turn to mediums that seemed more immediately connected to the real (photography, Land Art), leaving the painters to their visions of an unspecified sublime, as in certain manifestations of the monochrome. Nigel Cooke feels the pull of this seductive sublimity—more to the point, he knows how to make the viewer feel it—but he distrusts it; he wants his paintings to contradict their own grandeur. Typical results of these mixed intentions can be found in Scandalous Magic Par Excellence, 2001, in which a gorgeous expanse of pitch-black sky is riven down the middle by a bolt of lightning emanating from a tiny dark humanoid eye. At the bottom of the canvas, immensely difficult to see—the edge of the big painting is so dose to the floor that it’s hard to make out the details even from a kneeling position—lies a landscape of rubble, toxic-looking and barren yet rendered with obsessive precision. The devil, we’re told, is in the details, and the same has been said of God, but here the desolate world of earthly minutiae seems almost infinitely far from either spiritual power, malignant or benign. Almost unnoticeably, a head emerges from the earth—a cross between Samuel Beckett’s Winnie and one of George Romero’s living dead, perhaps.

Cooke’s skies could be anywhere, but his stony plots seem to evoke a decaying “last of England” that may be less topical now than back in the Thatcher era but remains quite real in the grim cities of the (formerly) industrial north. The distinction between sublime heavens and desolate terrain becomes interestingly blurry in Catabolic Vanitas, 2001, in which what seems to be a gray, overcast daytime sky turns out, toward the bottom of the painting, to be a wall. A similar, partly defaced wall/sky backs Smile for the Monkey Man, 2001-2002, this time punctuated by shuttered windows with ropes hanging from one to the other
on which, oddly enough, monkeys are perched—maybe the rainbow that reaches up through the scene is just one more piece of graffiti like the rest.

Cooke has the immaculate technique required to be both a finicky miniaturist and an expansive monochrome field painter, as well as the pictorial intelligence it takes to make the two artists in him collaborate on a single picture. What he seems to lack is the confidence to let them really go at it without overeditorializing. Scandalous Magic and Catabolic Vanitas are among his most restrained productions; in Don’t Mess with My Message, 2002—where the ground sprouts a whole population of heads, this time among the wrecks of abandoned cars and vans. and the enigmatic eye of the earlier work has become what looks like an ape’s head, now discharging lightning from behind dark sunglasses—a certain cartoonishness makes the painting hard to take seriously.

Perhaps Cooke has to decide whether he wants to be the punk/goth prophet of ruin suggested by the ground-level portions of his paintings or the conjurer of decorous exaltation we see at work in his stunning skies. Even in his best paintings, one is always a bit too conscious that what’s impressive is his triumph over the contrary tendencies of his material. In these paintings, landscape finds a brilliant if tenuous present but still not much of a future.

Barry Schwabsky