Graphite (noun): A blackish soft allotropic form of carbon in hexagonal crystalline form: used in pencils, crucibles, and electrodes, as a lubricant, as a moderator in nuclear reactors.1
It has now been several years since Christopher Cook made an oil painting. His recent practice has consisted solely of what he calls ‘graphites’: works on paper (and occasionally aluminium) using graphite powder dissolved in turpentine, oil and resin. His name for them evokes their uncertain status, especially in relation to painting on the one hand and drawing on the other. Why not call them ‘drawings’? Graphite on paper, after all, is drawing’s single most ubiquitous mode. Besides which, being made of graphite, these works are achromatic or monochromatic - depending on how you define grey - an attribute we again most readily identify with drawing, at least if we define it in opposition to painting.
Cook’s graphites, though, are doused in a turpentine-based medium, and turpentine’s toxic odour is itself enough to underline the absence of oil colour, with which it has been so heroically paired down the centuries. Besides this, we can tell from the quality of marks that the images once existed in a fluid state associated with painting, as opposed to drawing. They seem situated roughly at a mid-point between the two disciplines, but in a manner that does not seem static. Instead, they veer towards one or the other, according to how we perceive and conceptualise them at any given moment, and, in any case, to describe the graphites as painting/drawing hybrids still seems inadequate: they allude to yet other media. For instance, their surfaces have a metallic quality, leaden and glistening by turns, which lends them the look of early black and white photographs. The paper Cook uses is thick, shiny and non-porous, much like photographic paper. Many of the graphites feature large areas of mid-grey, which on close inspection reveal a fine ‘grain’ - as we would say of a photograph - made up of tiny, suspended graphite particles. Often they are governed by a dramatic and strange depth of field: images appear caught in sharp focus against often disconcertingly murky environments. Here and there a wave or eddy of turps creates the impression that these are images in the process of emerging in trays of developer. Various allusions to photography and its processes give the works a slightly mechanistic feel that keeps the idiosyncrasies and lyricism of much of the mark-making and some of the imagery in check. Crucially, it also gives them a documentary edge, as if we should take these dream-like images for reality.
In one recent work, something resembling a light meter runs down one side of the image, as if we are observing through a camera viewfinder. Earlier images feature ornate curtains, proscenium arches and transparent domes. These various frames and enclosures stand in the way of our relationship with the action that is situated beyond or within, reminding us that we have no direct access to the source, and signalling that what we are looking at is itself a construction. Such devices also speak of an ambivalent facet of experience, that of being excluded - of being situated on the outside of something beyond our control or comprehension. Cook’s graphites have, to date, all been singular images, with the exception of one short sequence (Homing), in which this notion is strongly apparent. It evokes what appears to be an urban scene at night, with a large factory, office or administrative building at vanishing point and sodium street lights, viewed through what we might take to be a windscreen. The whole image seems to be dissolving, as if surveyed through a deluge, or perhaps simply because the wipers won’t work. Successive images in this sequence feature diminishing quantities of information, as if the environment immediately beyond the car is becoming increasingly obscure. We may feel the journey has taken a sinister turn, as in film noir, or else recall being lost without a map in a foreign city whose structures look alien and whose inhabitants are asleep. Each image returns us back to the same scene, but on each return the environment becomes more cryptic, more unsettling.
The recent graphites seem to dwell as much on the observer as the observed. A recent image, Resolution, positions us high up in the sky, looking down on barren terrain, maybe desert, featuring some kind of industrial complex made up of circular forms, perhaps the tops of towers, connected by a network of conduits. Our view is partly occluded by dark clouds of graphite, but there is a ‘window of opportunity’. The suggestion that we are viewing the scene from an aircraft, or via a satellite, implicates us in a form of surveillance, an act of scrutiny at odds with the supposedly poetic activity of viewing art works. Although not the explicit subject of the work, it is hard to look at this image without thinking of the low resolution aerial images that were provided to the United Nations Security Council as supposed evidence of Iraq’s weapons programme. In a 1969 essay accompanying proposals to site works by Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris and himself at the Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport, Robert Smithson advanced the idea of ‘Aerial Art’ - art that was made to be seen from above at great distances, from aeroplanes or satellites, “there is no reason why one shouldn’t look at art through a telescope", he suggested, casually and provocatively, and his observations prove useful in viewing certain images in Cook’s new sequence of graphites on paper. Smithson was interested in the way "the old landscape of naturalism and realism transforms into a new landscape of abstraction and artifice" when viewed a long way above. "Aerial photography and air transportation bring into view the surface features of this shifting world of perspectives. The rational structures of buildings disappear into irrational disguises and are pitched into optical illusions. The world seen from the air is abstract and illusive. From the window of an airplane one can see drastic changes of scale, as one ascends and descends. The effect takes one from the dazzling to the monotonous in a short space of time - from the shrinking terminal to the obstructing clouds".2
Some of these graphites offer the viewer an almost forensic role. Even when the forms appear abstract, as in Resolution, there is still some sense that together they represent a system, challenging the viewer to determine the configuration’s true purpose. The resemblance to photography underscores the impression that in these bare ciphers lies encrypted information. As well as resembling something we might see with the naked eye, objects also exist on a micro or macroscopic scale, the graphite particles evoking galaxies, wet sand or sub-atomic particles, sometimes simultaneously. When that happens, the framing devices at the edges no longer recall dashboards or doorways, but instead read as eyepieces to telescopes or microscopes - we’re not sure which. Cook’s works revel in making extreme shifts in scale believable, as when a long tubular amoebic form shares the same space as a pond or copse, or when the overwrought arms of a baroque chandelier behave like plankton. The results are perplexing, deliberately playing havoc with our ordering systems (chemical, astronomical, digital, industrial, art historical, biological etc).
It is clear that Cook's images delight in the coexistence of the incongruous. The landscapes he represents, like those in which Smithson made earthworks, often lie on the fringes of the built world, "at the edge of our lives", as Cook puts it, "where the systems we rely on start to fray". Smithson described such a place in ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’ (1967), a work in the form of a slide show and essay. In his photographs, as in many of the graphites, ugly bits of industrial infrastructure assume unexpected symbolic significance: a set of six pipes spewing filth into a river, for example, is christened ‘The Fountain Monument’. At one point he appears to be describing fossils from the Jurassic age: "since it was Saturday, many machines were not working, and this caused them to resemble prehistoric creatures trapped in mud, or, better, extinct machines - mechanical dinosaurs stripped of their skin". It may seem a stretch to make a connection between Cook’s works on paper with Smithson’s earthworks, but there is correspondence on the level of material, as well as content, the graphite drawn directly from underground seams (disused mines, Smithson argued, made ideal sites for earthworks). Once dissolved in the medium Cook will often allow it to follow its own course. This physical or geological aspect of the graphites may have more in common with process and anti-form sculpture (for instance Smithson’s own Asphalt Rundown (1969) or Richard Serra’s molten lead Splash Piece (1969) than gestural abstraction in painting.
Our inability to discern an overall narrative in these landscapes, despite the almost uncanny sense that one exists, is a little like the experience of deja vu. Cook’s images don’t so much seem dredged from dreams, as with Surrealism, but from those moments when submerged memories unexpectedly re-surface. Deja vu strikes with an overwhelming sense of significance, yet is not attributable to a particular source, or that source, in itself, seems banal. Typically, we are uncertain whether we are recalling an actual event, or something imagined or dreamt. Perhaps Christopher Cook’s graphites could be located somewhere between realism and surrealism, but if we are speaking psychologically they seem to belong to that brief lacuna of time shortly before we wake, when our conscious minds exert some indefinable control on the narrative of our dreams.