New York

Nigel Cooke

Andrea Rosen Gallery

He might previously have been considered a cityscape specialist, but British painter Nigel Cooke turned explicitly toward the figure in his third solo exhibition at Andrea Rosen. Still, in five epic canvases, nine tiny ones, and ten shrunken bronze heads, Cooke intensified the ominous mood established by his earlier work, picturing a cast of end- time antiheroes and continuing to narrate some of painting’s many and still-accumulating deaths. Absorbed by the idea that completing an image necessarily implies destroying or absorbing its predecessor, and fascinated by the possibility of enfolding representation within representation (“If paint can describe a tree and a man,” he once asked, “then what happens when it describes a painting?”), Cooke dives ever deeper into the treacherous waters of self-reflexivity. Fortunately, the relaxed confidence of his brushwork provides a vital breath of air.

In the four paintings that dominated the show (Blind Snake 2, 2009, hung alone opposite the front desk), Cooke follows a succession of lone male outcasts through a meager, unforgiving world. The protagonist of Heavy Beret, 2009, slumps dejectedly against a spindly tree, the creative burden implied by the work’s title additionally reflected by the scrappy sketch of a bird that the man has pinned to its trunk, and by his pigment-splattered clothes. The man’s features—equal parts clownlike and skeletal—exacerbate the image’s tragicomic tone without managing to offset the painting’s apocalyptic mood, apparent also in its backdrop of veils of metallic scarlet. Two forlorn white blooms that reach optimistically for an invisible sun are a neat formal touch but likewise fail to lighten the mood, and a small rectangle of flat red that drifts across the picture’s opposite side seems to herald not moral resolution but cold analytics, a rude interjection of pure abstraction in a critical moment of human drama.

An adjacent picture, 1989, 2009, is more cinematic in both proportions and composition, but no less bleak in what it seems to imply. Against a metallic blue-gray void—marked again by geometric signifiers of an art world beyond—a capped and hooded figure steps onto an arid-looking patch of grass. His eyes and nose have been reduced to three blots of primary color and his head is maned in flamelike yellow. In one hand he holds a small abstract canvas with the word crap daubed along its near edge. What kind of quest is this disconsolate mutant on? Is he convinced of the value of what he carries, or is he looking for a cliff to throw it off? And would such an act constitute artistic suicide, or rebirth, or what, exactly?

Most of the show’s smaller paintings also portray tormented wanderers, focusing on their bearded, besmirched faces. The subject of I’m Not Sure, 2009, has a green and brown mess where his eyes should be, while that of Young Painter, 2009, is prevented from seeing by a loose wrapping of heavy bandages. These and other faces have an ancient, archetypal feel; they might be fabled or biblical personalities, remembered only for their fatal flaws. Cooke’s sculptures do something similar. Diminutive, misshapen skulls, they are accessorized with battered baseball caps and vast, bulbous noses, cigars jammed between their grimacing jaws. Some, like Ghost and Thales (both 2009) suffer the further humiliation of having paint dribbled over them, while Anaximander, 2009, is surrounded by three smaller heads that orbit it on the ends of wires, internal conflict made naggingly manifest. Although these faux artifacts in particular—along with two willfully pathetic diptychs of cartoon dogs—have their lighter side, Cooke’s work in general remains thrilling in its despair.

Michael Wilson