Sunday, 8 March 2009

Nigel Cooke

To Work Is To Play 2008
Oil on Canvas 220 x 370 x 7cm

Modern Art, London
24 May 2008

The title of the show is "New Accursed Art Club" and is clearly about ‘old school’ artists being a dead cliché, a theme that is explored in various ways in the work. The word that comes to my mind when confronted with these large imposing paintings is bathos, the way one finds an incongruous mixture high and low culture. This is usually associated with poetry, but I think applicable to this use of large skilfully painted statements to depict caricactures.

Cooke uses his undoubted technical skill to depict everything that is coarse and base in the urban landscape. Of course there are the usual clichés of copulating and defecating dogs, but what is worse in Cooke’s world is that even the fairies wear baseball caps and CK underpants! In a way this exposé of the revered artists reminds me of the parodies of William Hogarth.

He uses very deep metal stretchers for these large canvases, and the canvas is very fine and no evidence of the weave is visible on the surface. The edges are pristine white and have been expertly masked; very crisp.

I would guess that for the background, thin paint has been run down the surface and I wonder if the paint is brushed or sprayed? The fuzziness of the edges, the scumbling of the paint on the mottled ground, and the use bright colour against the greys of the background.

The detail below shows an instance of scarring in either the primer or in subsequent paint layers and perhaps provide evidence of reworking the images. They can be found throughout the surface and serve to break up and dispel the perfection of the build up of glazes. This build up of transparent layers is formidable, leaving thicker passages of pigment deep inside the surface, and I can well believe these large paintings take over a year to paint.

One would think that an artist obsessed with the "Death of Painting" couldn't fail to paint melancholic images, but I cannot say this was true for all the works in the show. I think this painting is a good example of where, for me, the bathos is too strong and the underlying melancholia becomes part of the joke.

©blackdog 2009


  1. An intriguing painting! How many details can be seen and the longer we are looking at the pic, the more we can detect like children of every age! Different worlds in reality and fiction ( today's urban life/ brutalism of modern architecture- English garden culture /paradise lost-regained/shed/ folk culture - fictional/science-fictional-fairy tale elements- painting style of old painters- style of graffiti- kids drawing- comic -kitsch...) might have been mixed/gathered here at a kind of "play"-ground/ little Disney world (s.title).
    The plant-foreground reminds me of Brabant (e.g. Maitre de Flemalle) or old-German paintings (e.g. Dürer, Schongauer)- other details, esp. the winged beings/putti, remind me of old English fairies/ flower books for children or of some photo's of Bibi Veth(SC)! Or film figures? The kid-figure on the left reminds me of Oliver Twist or a Charlie Chaplin film (in any case: déja vu!)? William Hogarth?- perhaps!
    Your analysis is very perceptive, knowing and helpful! The terms "bathos" (against pathos), (much)"joke", "underlying melancholy" might hit the nail on the head- a very interesting, original, highly educated painter with excellent painting skills indeed - and he is right: We are living in such a kind of Disney world in our times!

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  4. Removed the comments made in error Philine.

    I like Mr Cooke's work a lot and note that The Tate has purchased one of the very large paintings from this show for its permanent collection. Obviously his technical skills and depth of ideas is beginning to get recognition in the highest circles. I will review another of his works in a later post.

  5. Remarkable are the skulls allover staring at us, signs of a dead nature, killed by man -made-actions? The colours of the roses, the plants have been faded, signs of decay, too.
    I read that the pin-up on the shed on the left refers to the famous self-portrait of Van Gogh (a leading motif on his paintings) after having cut away his ear!