Nigel Cooke’s paintings are dark and fantastical, his swathes of colour obscuring the landscapes populated by diminutive figures seemingly lost in a world out of control, a nightmare that alludes to death and destruction. The compositions are a clash of life and death, a constant state of renewal as if Cooke is trying to capture the two extremes in a single frame, each separate yet simultaneously in conflict. As Cooke says about his work:
In multiple cycles of destruction and renewal, the wave storms crash into the imagery and wipe it out, leaving me the task of rebuilding the picture.
Cooke creates a tension in his work as abstraction vies against realism, addition against subtraction and obliteration, the technique battling against itself while the subject matter is at the mercy of his brush. Which is it to be? Are the lovers, holiday makers, sailors, sirens, clowns, chefs, half-wits and smoking flower people to be destroyed by the storm of colour or are they to live despite their predicament?
Cooke is a voracious writer about art and has written a great deal about his own work. Here’s an excerpt he wrote about his latest paintings:
Made over long periods of time and with a wide range of techniques, the paintings are layered with disparate and conflicting relationships, as I try to work themes together that have no direct natural fit.
Abstraction moves through the work as a force of change and a question, obliterating and revising the more pictorial aspects. It wipes away sense with an outlandish scale and velocity of mark that dwarfs the smaller components or consumes them altogether. The figurative aspect struggles against this assault until some sort of truce is arrived at, a kind of equalizing of values that feels artistically right, yet sort of broken and inconclusive. Although the large brushstrokes stand in for abstraction, they retain some value as figurative signs all the same. They can mimic the components of a giant orchid, a mimosa bush in high winds, an ocean wave smashing through a tree – either way, the giant ‘abstract’ brushstrokes hold the least ‘reality’ but the most authority, and stand in for my ambivalence and doubts, my suspicion of certainty in painting and the payoffs of coherence.
In this they also serve to complicate the point where the painting and the image meet. It is specifically at this point, this flashpoint between the image and the painting, that an imaginative rift also opens up, a place where my involvement with the image as a constant and reliable entity most abruptly changes gear. Marks obey the needs of the painting over the needs of the image – abstraction takes hold, and the sense of tree-ness’ is displaced, maybe maintained in silhouette, colour, symmetry or structure, but not necessarily in organization or pictorial likeness. There is something transcendental about all this for me; the painting has its own logic of growth whilst representing the image of a growing thing.
You can currently see Nigel Cooke’s paintings at The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin until 17th July