It felt a little dangerous and inappropriate to be viewing English-born artist Nigel Cooke's work, as if as viewers we had slipped inside his head to see insecurities, dark humor, questions and answers -- some of which it was difficult to feel as if we had the right to see.
Cooke lives only part-time in what most of us call reality. The rest of the time, well, let's just say he falls down the rabbit hole. "When I'm painting, it's like a trance," he says. "You have to be ultra sensitive to what's happening. My goal is always to introduce things I don't understand."
On the other end of that rabbit hole, is a series of characters and images and experiences that Cooke paints and sculpts.
When Cooke speaks -- as he did last Friday during a reception for his new eponymous exhibition at Goss Michael Foundation -- he refers to the figures in his work as if they exist, as if they have lives of their own: "They're trying to understand the world around them with creativity just as I'm doing."
What he's found and created in his fabricated other world are creatures who are making art and looking for meaning in a world where, much like ours, not a whole lot makes sense. It's a world where the abstract makes more sense than reality.
"The figures are melancholical and adrift just like a real life, laughing at the absurdity in their worries," he said. here's certainly inevitability to ruin. They're about looking for the answer and getting it and the painting completes it. They're about making a monument to their own creativity."
Bananas are anthropomorphized. Long-haired, drinking, monster truck-driving characters make art. "The characters are waiting for the painter to tell them what is to be done. They get distressed by the painting. The paint moves in on them."
"Bathers" is overwhelmingly green -- as though algae has grown everywhere. It's interesting that it would have a classical title. It has a familiar, classical composition. But, well, along with bathers there are frogs mating, a bandaged head with a blue nose, a sandwich with fried egg on top, teeth floating, and a smiling sun.
The piece "Overwhelming Power of Siren" doesn't even need it's name. Figures swathed in preposterously wide brushstrokes have been drawn in by the siren's song and are now barely visible in the wreckage. There is something graphic novel-like about Cooke's work; it marries classic storytelling with modern strokes.
"Blu Tack Heart" depicts a tiny heart in blue. Not a Valentine's Day heart, a human heart. In "Country Club" the "real" building is in the foreground and a kids' drawing of a castle is in the back. Which is real and which is the fake?
A monster truck with one figure on top, two others leaning against it, and "buy more crap" painted on the side fills the canvas in "Interference." A painting they have made hangs on a tree, about which Cooke said, "They're doing paintings that are worse than the ones they're in. It doesn't make sense that they can paint in that place and I like that."
"Little Carmine," "The Arche-Fossil," and "Thales" are all sculptures of the strange little bandaged head with the round, clown-like nose. "More Ideas" is a sculpture of a fried egg with a blue yoke and a sad face drawn on it. "The sculptures are a way of stepping out of the paint. The characters in the paintings make them and then put the sculptures all around themselves," Cooke explained.
Cooke says that reviewers' understanding of the work as being apocalyptic is misdirected. All of his work does manifest a sense of time passing and a relationship with destruction. But "the scenes are ridiculous and comical. The end of the world is the beginning of something else. So what the characters are experiencing is the end of a bad moment and the beginning of another moment. They're laughing in the face of the unraveling -- which is sort of an artistic statement in and of itself."
The work actually becomes much more interesting and inspiring when you think of it not as apocalyptic, but as '"ow." And yet, others' find Cooke's work frightening or sad. But Cooke disagrees. "I actually find them funny," he said. "They're quite joyous to me. I know they're good if they make me laugh."
These works are Cooke's own insecurities brought to life. The characters are "taking my behavior to the extreme and holding it up to see the ridiculousness," he said, surrounded by them in the gallery. "They are mirrors of my psychological relationship with painting. The characters are trying to fumble their way through painting themselves. They are a parody making a mockery of what I'm actually doing. It's my own self-doubt manifested. The figure is a stand-in for an artist, not-so-much an alter-ego. They ridicule the ego of the artist."
For Cooke, painting is about "placing things where the paintbrush needs it, despite whether or not it makes sense." The work is about his relationship to painting.
And, it is totally enthralling. It's clearly the channeling of another world (or worlds). At the very least it serves as an alternate vision of our own. Cooke is well aware that what he sees isn't the average view.
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"Being an artist is a character trait. Manual talent is one thing," Cooke explained. "But to have the temperament is more unusual, to have the ability to concentrate on what's not really there -- that has to be your most natural place. That's who I am. That's reality. That's a kind of crisis actually. I sometimes call it an illness. Making a work is like alienating your own mind. You have a new relationship with your own brain."
But he knows it's not all mental energy. Cooke -- like any good self-deprecating artist -- gives much credit to the materials as well. "The painting I end up with is never what I had in mind," he admitted. "You have to listen to the paint. Sometimes it won't do what you want it to do. The trouble is to let out the paint's voice and still have a powerful image come out. I want to use everything painting can do."
See Nigel Cooke through February 18 at Goss Michael Foundation. And plan to spend some time at the gallery. It's not easy to find your way back out of the rabbit hole.