Nigel Cooke, To work is to play, 2008
Nigel Cooke is renowned for producing large-scale, meticulously realised paintings that depict fantastical, hyper-realistic scenes of urban decay. His work references a wide range of painting styles and traditions; in Cooke's words, he wants to simultaneously represent 'all the characteristics of painting, from the retarded to the sophisticated . . . as though the whole past lives of the medium were flashing before its eyes'.(1) Highly stylised popular art forms such as graffiti and the graphic novel are important stylistic touchstones for Cooke. At the same time, his technique resembles the jewel-like oils of Flemish Renaissance painting. As such, we see in his work a collision between this artisan-like, labour-intensive approach to painting, and the immediacy of contemporary modes of image making.
To work is to play was first exhibited in Cooke's 2008 solo exhibition at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London. Titled 'New Accursed Art Club', the exhibition explored the myths and cliches associated with the role and persona of the artist. In To work is to play, the title is both a slogan and an adage; a recurrent theme for Cooke is that of the 'tortured' artist — a stereotype he exploits to tragicomic effect in his paintings. As Cooke has stated:
'I'm attracted to the martyr mythology and the cult of suffering that painting has enjoyed over the years. As my paintings are labour-intensive, and are known to be so, this Van Gogh stuff has started to come out like self-parody.'(2)
Cooke calls the clownish, bearded figures in the work 'Van Gogh tramps', depicting them as desolate characters wandering through a decaying urban environment that recalls abandoned industrial areas of the artist's native Manchester.(3)
The detail in his works is extraordinary — he uses surgeon's goggles and extremely small brushes to execute his works. The refined details contrast with the enormous scale of the canvases. At a height of over two metres and width of almost four, To work is to play provides an immersive experience for the viewer, as it completely fills their field of vision. So much pictorial information is compressed into the minute details of the painting that it becomes impossible to comprehend the entirety of the composition. The viewer is denied a single, fixed perspective and is compelled to shift attention between the macro and the micro in a dynamic and active viewing experience.
While earlier works by Cooke employed a shallow perspective, To work is to play is composed with careful consideration given to all aspects of the picture plane. In the extreme foreground is a beret-wearing figure pinning a painting of a cartoon-like expressionistic portrait to a yellow shed — another reference to Van Gogh and his 1888 painting, The yellow house. We see a tiny fairy who is nursing a hangover sitting on a plank, while another is flying around, playing the guitar. Spindly weeds grow strange protuberances: vegetal clumps, a mask, and anthropomorphised leaves. The middle ground is populated by characters depicted in various states of intoxication, while dogs copulate among the ruins. However, the references to psychedelia, excess and animal instincts are handled in a delicate and almost precious way.
The background depicts a mausoleum-like building recalling the brutalist style of architecture of many British public buildings from the 1960s and 1970s. Brutalist architecture was associated with the idealism of late Modernism but Cooke has daubed the building in graffiti, giving it a somewhat deflated and pathetic appearance and deriding its grandiose utopian vision. A question mark, constructed from mass-produced humble concrete bricks, is offered as a decorative feature. Appearing in an almost supra-dimension to the pictorial content, coloured geometric oblongs subtly infiltrate the picture plane in curious placements that effect a powerful interruption of the three-dimensional perspective. These 'flat' shapes reinforce the two-dimensionality of the painting, as if geometric abstraction can ironically keep things real.
Like many of Cooke's works, To work is to play invokes the tradition of landscape painting — the work celebrates the sublime and exploits the power of pictorial space to overwhelm the viewer. It borrows from the vast landscapes of the nineteenth century in its ability to immerse the viewer but, rather than present us with a rousing, heroic scene, it reveals a comical and dysfunctional urban space.
Nicholas Chambers and Naomi Evans, Artlines, no.3, 2008, pp.26–27.
1 Craig Garrett, 'Nigel Cooke: Mud in a vehicle', Flash Art, no.236, May–June 2004, p.88.
2 Daniel Kunitz, 'All the painting you need', Art Review, March–April 2006, p.95.
3 'Nigel Cooke: New Accursed Art Club' [media release], Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, April 2008.