Nigel Cooke: Night Crossing

image courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art

Modern Art London 30 April to 29 May

In his fourth exhibition at the Modern Art Gallery, Nigel Cooke demonstrates his continuing preoccupation with themes of entropy and dereliction, and the difficulties of an artist trying to assess his own relation to the work he creates.

As you enter the cool, urbane gallery space, Cooke’s forbidding triptych Departure, 2009-10, whose three 220 x 195-cm panels dominate the wall opposite the gallery entrance, has an instantaneous effect, plunging the viewer into a tempestuous world of angst-ridden psychic turbulence: in contrast to the businesslike setting, this dark and desperate piece seems at once overwhelming and overdone. Its dark tones, dramatic brushstrokes and (post-)apocalyptic imagery are at once affecting and so charged with emotion that it is hard to know how to engage with the strange protagonists, stranded in desperate isolation at the start of their journey. Should we empathise with their sense of isolation from the world, or see only images of the clichéd artist-martyr struggling against forces he alone can see? The title and form of the piece are taken from a Max Beckmann painting of 1932-33, whose delivery is more straightforwardly deadpan, coming from the artist’s struggle to react to the contemporary upheavals of the burgeoning Nazi state. Yet our current society is not one which treats such ingenuous statements kindly; the gallery’s own press release suggests that we should admire the mindless valour of these creative spirits.

Empathy is perhaps easier in the second room, where the paintings have the vibrant yet menacing feel of a manic rave where people try to find a moment of ecstasy or clarity; thus In Da Club – Rapture (2010) has the woozy atmosphere of that joyous moment minutes before you stumble out and spatter your shoes in the alley behind the club, while In Da Club – Volume One (2010), with its bright daubs of light, suggests the multiple nerve janglings of the committed party animal. In this room, Cooke’s philosophers seek to revel in their isolation and seize the moment in a bid for cosmic understanding, and this search for something better (or at least more fun) is more comprehensible perhaps than the wild wonderings of the hermit-like figures in the first room. The violent swirlings of the outside are here internalised, in the ambiguous stance of the man in Volume One: he is no longer sure whether to fight the world or embrace it – is he hurling the stone, or dancing with it?

Cooke’s characteristic blending of technical mastery with base themes and materials is in evidence throughout the thirteen canvases on display. One is constantly reminded of his painterly background and his fascination with the themes of painting’s history: in the delicate brushwork of the bottle in Rapture, reminiscent of a Flemish still life; or the grand themes which permeate the works. At the same time, the neon spray paint, comically reddened noses, and the recurring character, who Cooke describes as an ‘avuncular, paternal, fluffy, bearded old guy’ deflate these soaring aspirations of the past.

On leaving the show, the last painting by the doorway is Chef on Dung Mountain (2010), which, despite the man’s slumped posture, seems to draw in the breeze which ruffles his luxuriant beard from the window beside it, blowing away a little of the rank entropic influence of the other canvases, and as you step into the street, these impressions of sinister separation and desperate collapse begin to fade, leaving behind only the impression of a knowing artist pricking the inflated dreams of the past.

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