Nigel Cooke Recalibrates Abstraction
Since the beginning of his practice as a painter, the artist Nigel Cooke has tried to bring figuration and abstraction into the same conversation. His early works were desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes that featured bright, almost toxic colour combinations. At Pace Gallery and Pace Prints in New York, two exhibitions demonstrate Cooke's shift towards total abstraction.
Nigel Cooke, Gazing (2019). Oil and acrylic on linen. 224.9 x 164 cm. Exhibition view: Nigel Cooke: New Paintings, Pace Gallery, New York (31 January–29 February 2020). Courtesy © Nigel Cooke and Pace Gallery.
An a exhibition of monoprints and etchings by Cooke at Pace Prints at 521 West 26th Street (1 February–7 March 2020) demonstrates how much of Cooke's earlier work—depicting nude women, animals such as deer and horses, and groups of people interacting within utopian gardens—was informed by classical painting in both the Eastern and Western tradition, evocative of classical figurative painters in the Baroque and Renaissance traditions—the disegno of Leonardo da Vinci, and the Baroque dramas of Nicolas Poussin, for example—as well as Chinese scroll painting.
Over the years, Cooke's lines have become more diffuse, and his human and animal figures have become increasingly fused with brightly coloured abstract backgrounds. At Pace Gallery's 540 West 25th Street space in New York, the recently closed exhibition, New Paintings (31 January–29 February 2020), demonstrated how Cooke has moved away from figuration to embrace the abstract entirely. Bodies are gone, leaving behind only washes of colours and swirling masses of lines laid energetically on raw linen canvasses.
In almost all of the works, strokes of white seem to have been applied on the top-most layers of colour, highlighting the lines so that they seem to be composed of neon—the effect is such that they seem alive.
Pines (2019), for example, consists of rich, bright green lines dense with clumps of shiny oil painted over deep, dark clouds of gray and brown wash. The painting recalls a sylvan landscape in a windstorm, a nightmare, or the course of many seasons, growing dense. Bather (2019) is a whir of cerulean, cobalt, black, and flecks of white that conjures less the act of bathing than the aesthetic ideal of what water can look like. Love (2019) is pink and black, laid upon washes of yellow; brushstrokes cluster towards the top of the canvas while the bottom has a paucity of lines, suggesting an absence, or, if one wants to be maudlin, a heartbreak. In almost all of the works, strokes of white seem to have been applied on the top-most layers of colour, highlighting the lines so that they seem to be composed of neon—the effect is such that they seem alive.
Cooke began each painting with a single colour drawn in a loose structure, on top of which he applied lines in loose, gestural, dynamic strokes, much like a calligrapher applies lines to the page. Cooke, who used to work in such fine detail that he had to wear surgical glasses to complete his paintings, confesses that this 'feeling of being in a performative arena with the painting' felt strange to him at first, 'but as time went on it became intoxicating, addictive'. Soon, he realised that this was his 'natural temperament as a painter'—'to work with and against failure and success in one unbroken gesture brought out deeper ideas and incidents in the process.'
But despite their abstraction, it is clear that these paintings represent something. In Sunlight (2019), frantic spirals and curves of neon yellow paint steer clear of two humps towards the bottom of the canvas. The works are immediately redolent of abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still, and their titles offer an entry point into understanding what Cooke might be trying to represent. Athlete (2019) glistens with oily slicks of red and black—a head and two flung arms are discernable in the coiling mass of gestures.
Cooke says that the paintings in his New York show were inspired by his year-long residency in the city, where he had never lived before, despite showing in galleries here for 17 years. 'Having this chance at this point must have connected to that early sense of adventure and possibility, and as I was looking to let some new sort of energy into my work', he told Ocula; 'it meant I was maybe more tuned-in and open-minded than I might have been at other times.'
In the end, the artist proves that the conversation about where painting can go as a medium has certainly not died. 'What happened', he says of the process this exhibition represents, 'was a recalibration of what a painting is, what an image is, what abstraction is.' —[O]