May 30 - July 16, 2013
by Nigel Cooke, April 2013
Paint is inert on a palette, but then you notice the colour of it and begin to make connections. If it's green or yellow or something like that, it begins a relationship with the natural world, the landscape, vegetation, etc. If you then push it into a shape or a line, it becomes a leaf, a blade of grass, a shoot of growth. And it has grown - information has been injected, and a journey has started from base matter to representation. Our perceptions hanker for representation, so it's common to detect and develop correspondences between painted forms and things in the world at large automatically. A green blob will effortlessly become a leaf if the colour and context are right, and my tree works manipulate this tendency, aiming to stretch the possibilities of the visual sense of a tree, using it as a point of departure for an experience in painting and the growth of an idea. The tree is both a hermetic shape and a nest of holes and spaces, a frame and a filter, a wicker basket and a dam. Its dualities are a paradigm for the painting of nature and the nature of painting.
As is well known, Mondrian's achievements in abstraction came from trees. Initial fascination with the configuration of an actual tree led to a rigorous cycle of reworkings of the tree form, until a conception of language supplanted that of vision, until the organic was interiorised as a highly personal system of grids and lines. What Mondrian saw as a search for 'the foundation of things' in his paintings of trees was a journey from Cartesian, perspectival vision to what it means to think about vision itself. I have felt a closeness to this movement of thought lately, and have sought to explore it in these works too.
Made over long periods of time and with a wide range of techniques, the paintings are layered with disparate and conflicting relationships, as I try to work themes together that have no direct natural fit. Over time, my conflicting impulses flesh out a kind of 'tree' - a clump of dualities and paradoxes that refuse to collaborate, yet sit in the same bordered shape (a canvas). Abstraction moves through the work as a force of change and a question, obliterating and revising the more pictorial aspects. It wipes away sense with an outlandish scale and velocity of mark that dwarfs the smaller components or consumes them altogether. The figurative aspect struggles against this assault until some sort of truce is arrived at, a kind of equalizing of values that feels artistically right, yet sort of broken and inconclusive. Although the large brushstrokes stand in for abstraction, they retain some value as figurative signs all the same. They can mimic the components of a giant orchid, a mimosa bush in high winds, an ocean wave smashing through a tree - either way, the giant 'abstract' brushstrokes hold the least 'reality' but the most authority, and stand in for my ambivalence and doubts, my suspicion of certainty in painting and the payoffs of coherence.
In this they also serve to complicate the point where the painting and the image meet. It is specifically at this point, this flashpoint between the image and the painting, that an imaginative rift also opens up, a place where my involvement with the image as a constant and reliable entity most abruptly changes gear. A host of pictorial non-sequiturs arise: A stroke of paint acting as a branch dwindles to a fork of lightning that terminates in a microscopic fried egg at a remote seashore. A fall of mimosa blossom streaks into the hair of a smoldering woman. A wave of paint is broken by a cabbage-like male head smoking a cigarette, sending up a cone of impasto smoke. The pistil and stamens of an orchid are calcified into the whorls and sockets of a deconstructed skull. In a way the tree is the framework on which the painting begins to grow on its own terms, allowing the objects and events to sprout from, hang on or become entangled in a generic energetic mass. Marks obey the needs of the painting over the needs of the image - abstraction takes hold, and the sense of tree-ness' is displaced, maybe maintained in silhouette, colour, symmetry or structure, but not necessarily in organization or pictorial likeness. There is something transcendental about all this for me; the painting has its own logic of growth whilst representing the image of a growing thing.
The tree is both close-up and remote - it is at once all around and far away, due to the scale range of marks operating within the framework. It is usually set by the sea - the frontier of elements, where the landscape not only ends, but where the water, minerals, air, vegetation and wind mix together. This is the beach setting of my tree works, where this elemental action renders the figures at their base not completely insignificant, but certainly idle, unemployed, stunned by leisure. To me there is an oddly misanthropic feeling around them - there can be more significance given to a missile of paint fossilized on the surface of the work than a reveller collapsed drunk in the background of the scene, a bather staring out to sea, or a writer stupefied amongst empty pages.
Trees and plants have always appeared in my work, as fronds of grass, twigs, trunks, morphological skull trees etc. Recently the tree or flower has combined with aspects of the earlier storm paintings to form a mini series of works within a larger developmental strand. This is the first show to focus on a selection of these tree works in isolation.
Nigel Cooke has exhibited in a wide range of public institutions, including The Goss-Michael Foundation, Texas; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; South London Gallery, London; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas; and Tate Britain, London. He is represented by Modern Art, London, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.
The Douglas Hyde Gallery gratefully acknowledges the support of the artist, Stuart Shave, and Andrea Rosen.