Something changes when there is any minor ripple in continuity. And painting is all ripples, only ripples. The flow, the attitude and creative position of the paintings, all of these new style paintings, is that of chance against order, collapse against structure. It's about trying to approach the same thing time and again but ending up in radically different places due to the accumulation of differences, of choices.
– Nigel Cooke, July 2020
Pace Gallery is pleased to present Nigel Cooke, the first solo exhibition by the artist in Seoul, on view from September 2–October 24, 2020. Featuring four new paintings and a selection of works on paper, the exhibition is an extension of his recent presentation at Pace in New York, which marked a significant shift in the artist's direction toward a more performative, energetic, and abstract approach to figuration.
Cooke's new series of paintings, provisionally titled Loupe—after the jeweler's eyeglass used to study the micro perfections and flaws of gems—again introduces uncertainty, his decided 'ripple in continuity.' Cooke's latest body of work begins with revised scale and the productive move from studio to the domestic tabletop. Seven jewel-like works with red brush strokes painted on school exercise books reveal over-lapping layered organic curves and woven lines that Cooke describes as 'panoptic, pan psychic, trans-species: porous, mobile changelings.' With titles such as dune, cove, swimmer, and channel, they hint at the inner psycho-geography and trace memories of place: a morning run along the coast, immersion in water or the wing of an insect that alights on skin. Look closer and the eyes of an unknown creature appear. Turn away and back again and the shifting field reveals a shoulder blade, perhaps of the swimmer in question? Meaning in painting, as Cooke understands, is a contract between the maker and viewer. This is not a journey toward authority but toward negotiation.
Scaled down and approached through a micro lens, these seven drawings-cum-paintings are crowned by four larger scale works. Compositionally reminiscent of their micro-cousins, their vivid hues of red, green, orange and royal blue are enlarged from the exercise book to raw linen. They reverse Cooke's recent series of somber 'Midnight paintings' (2020)—painted after sunset in melancholy hues of Celestial, Prussian and Denumium blue—they appear hopeful, of another day and time. Moving from the clear figuration of Cooke's former work to abstract networks of line and colour, these paintings show the suggestion of a jawline or the heft and suggestion of a body, blood vessels as tumbleweed, organic, constrained and let-loose transspecies.
From the cities Cooke once-called home, Manchester and London, he has made a purposeful withdraw from the chattering classes and ever-more constrictive conversation of what art and paint might be toward the rural coastline and enlightened remove. For the artist, reinvention arrives in the mysterious rustle of the figure in the hedgerow, or the figuring of the journey from home to studio, or coastline to basement, or the nightlife of creatures illuminated in the night sky. His sloughing off of past paintings, of certain motivations, this is to say his committal to 'the tightrope event' that is painting is evident. From figuration to abstraction in paintings made after midnight, in different tones, in radically different scales—all push on and progress in subtle, often diffused ways, the resultant painted image and atmospherics beyond specifics.
Cooke's lines both reward and thwart the demand for meaning. The experience of seeing is illusory but also personal and flexible, and it suggests the possibility of an image to be seen in many ways by the same person. Here we have both the flurry and decided direct assertion of British painter Francis Bacon, yet we also have the open dimensions of Korean master artist Lee Ufan. As with Lee, Cooke also writes, defining and redefining each consecutive step. If painting is a language in Cooke, we have both a reader and a writer. 'How a painting is finished is about being shut out as the artist—in the final instance, when some kind of balance has been struck that is bewildering, then I am redundant and the painting has its own nature, an ecosystem of intonations that no longer depends on me for them to be free and available to relate to in some kind of cluster of varied opportunities. It's a point of responsibility, of knowing that the choices have amounted to this point and can't be reversed. That vulnerability is what makes me feel the paintings as alive and true, but it's also what pushes me out of the picture. In this there is a question of handwriting, of the body and the manual thought engendered by the act of painting. Does my hand have a life of its own, and what is that informed by? Is what I have done in the past or what I want to do in the future? Is it the paintings I have seen and loved, or what I have been told in the distant past?' As Cooke asks in each of these works from exercise book to canvas: What is painting of? What might it become?
Press release courtesy Pace Gallery.