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If you spend any time at all listening to Nigel Cooke’s own thoughts on his paintings you’ll come to realize quite quickly how important a place the idea of entropy holds in his work.  There’s a clear vacuum to the arrangement on his canvases; dereliction isn’t so much the pictorial subject as the negative space within which the painter-prisoner forces a new round of catch-as-catch-can. What appear from a fair viewing distance—far enough away for the eye to take in the entire canvas in a single glance—to be surfaces mostly devoid of differentiated information begin to reveal on closer inspection stigmatic points of imbalance and intensity.  Small, painfully detailed figures dot the periphery.  Miniaturized heads lie on narrow strips of hardscrabble ground, apparently severed from their bodies but appearing no worse the wear for it.  Cooke loosely appropriates these heads from magazines, tearing them from a context already distinct from everyday experience, and arranges them disjunctively like morse code or amulets, hedges against overwhelming disorder.  There are also seagulls, floating trompe l’oeil above the surface fray, graffiti tags signifying nothing, and impudent monkeys swinging pell mell across a violated space.  To view the paintings means taking several repeated steps back and forth from the canvas to alternately inspect the tiny loaded sites and then to parse their wider context.  It’s a repeated fracture of scale and priority, even tolerance.

 

Cooke’s work operates not within the rigorously systematized structures of modern painting, but in the defiant, often messy insistence to press on in its absence.  He has been called a “nano-existentialist”, and the urgent metaphysical rebellion that implies seems most fitting.  His antic preoccupation with the miniscule, preposterous and impractical against expanses of unbalanced blankness, forces a borderline between already dubious caches of effort and the nebulous anxiety that at all times seeps in to annihilate them.  But it’s that declaration, that investment of attention to the ostensibly tangential, that refusal to acquiesce, that validates the twin efforts of creator and viewer. 

 

For all their abject desolation, the scenes are continuously activated by the very things they seem to be missing, by the neediness they excite.  They’re a desperate re-engineering of absence and chaos, a refusal of history, and the mad proposal of functioning beyond the conveniences of hope.

 

© Copyright Gil Blank

Nigel Cooke

Originally Published in Influence magazine, Issue 1, 2003.