The mysterious forms of these new drawings - or paintings, for essentially they hover between the two forms of expression - evoke several different artistic universes. These universes are not necessarily in conflict with one another, though some are fully international and others may be thought of as being very English.
The first world they suggest is that of Surrealism, and more particularly that of the Surrealism of Dali and Tanguy. Here are the desert spaces, the mysterious objects isolated in lunar territories, familiar from the work of these two painters, the precisionists of the movement. There is also, occasionally, a suggestion of the work of Max Ernst, whose technique of frottage allowed him to conjure up new forms from sources such as a piece of coarsely grained wood. The hallucinatory precision cultivated so assiduously by Dali appears here in modified form - some elements are indeed precise, while others remain vague, and seem to have been suggested by the reaction of the fluid medium to the artist's handling of it.
More specifically English are the resemblances to the work of certainly artists on this side of the Channel, who were loosely connected to the Surrealist movement without ever being members of an official surrealist group. One of these was Paul Nash. Nash, like his contemporary Edward Wadsworth, had a particular fondness for beachscapes and other seaside scenes, and for the detritus left behind by advancing, then receding waters. This world is also present here. The granular texture of the liquid graphite seems particularly apt for evoking physical situations of this sort. Behind the art of Nash lay that of a number of British artists of the early 19th century - the young 'Ancients', as they paradoxically called themselves, who were devoted followers of William Blake. Chief among these was Samuel Palmer, and some of his densely worked monochrome drawings of his Shoreham period are also evoked here - not merely by the actual subject matter but by Cook's feeling for the denseness and richness of nature - the feeling we get from these compositions that they have been created not just with reference to what the eyes perceive but with every sense alert. Finally there are comparisons which might seem more remote. Two great printmakers, separated from one another by both time and nationality come to mind. One is the Frenchman Rodolphe Bresdin (1882-1885), a pioneer lithographer whose prints - grotesque, comic and macabre - powerfully influenced a whole generation of French Romantic writers. The other is Hercules Seghers (c.1590-1638), whose wild landscape prints had a major impact on Rembrandt.
If one looks for links between these creators, scattered across the centuries and working in very different milieus, one point in common seems to be stubborn individuality. The list I offer here is a list of 'odd men out'. Even Dali, despite his keenness for what was, or what was soon going to be, fashionable, belongs to it. One remembers with amusement the skill with which he evaded Andre Breton's attempts to control him and turn him into an obedient foot soldier within the official Surrealist Group. Another common characteristic which all the artists named possess is the power of evoking dreamlike atmospheres . It is here, rather than by making simple stylistic comparisons, that one seems to come closest to what
Christopher Cook is trying to do in this new series of works. If one looks at his earlier career, one sees that he has always been a powerfully imaginative artist. Many of his paintings are representations not of the world as it appears to the eye, but as it appears to the mind. As is also the case here, fragments of real appearances, things actually seen and experienced, are intermingled with invented elements. In the case of the present series, Cook can sometimes name a particular place he has seen as the starting point for his composition, but always, at some stage, the composition itself has taken charge, and evolved in its own fashion.
Those who know and admire Cook's earlier work may perhaps want to ask one particular question, which is why he has so suddenly abandoned colour? His previous paintings show that he has a wonderful feeling for colour harmonies - this may, indeed, be one of the reasons why he has found himself regularly drawn to the Indian subcontinent, which even today offers an unrivalled feast to those who are fascinated by contrasts of hue. The works seen here did indeed begin in full colour, and the decision to work in monochrome was not made lightly. If imposed itself through the sheer intensity of the imaginative activity which was bringing the series to birth. Absence of colour enabled the artist to focus on the elements which at that particular moment seemed to matter most to him, to look for the hidden narratives within these quasi-landscapes. It is here that other comparisons suggest themselves, attached to a historical link. In the mid 18th century the great Venetian painter G.B. Tiepolo made a series of prints, the Varii Capricci. At the very end of the same century, Goya made another series, Los Caprichos, followed twenty years later by the Disparates. These etchings show the way in which commissioned subjects were gradually being displaced, as the focus for the artist's professional activity, by things which were entirely new creations, with no logical reasons for their existence apart from the fact that the artist felt an impulse to make them. Tiepolo's aged magicians, Goya's strange winged creatures, are manifestos that proclaim the supremacy of the creative imagination. The same assertion is being made here, but in a type of expression where landscape rather than the figure is primary. This leads one to ask what the difference between the two types really is, and this, in turn, leads to some interesting speculations.
There seems to be no doubt that it is the practice of landscape painting which lies at the roots of 20th century abstraction. Kandinsky's famous account of coming into his own studio one day, in a tired or trance-like state, and of seeing one of his own pictures resting on its side and of being unable, suddenly, to read its figurative content, indicates that the painting in question was one of the broadly brushed Expressionist landscapes he had recently been painting at Murnau. The 'bones', so to speak, of abstraction are already clearly visible in the landscapes produced by some earlier masters, among them painters otherwise as different from one another as Nicolas Poussin and Caspar David Friedrich. Seghers, whom I have already mentioned above, fits rather neatly into this chain of development. Christopher Cook's most recent work adds another chapter to this fascinating story, since here, I think, one sees the landscape impulse, the desire to depict the recognisable, re-emerging from its immersion in free abstraction. There have been other instances of the same impulse in 20th century art, particularly in the United States, where one might point to some of the late paintings of Arshile Gorky, and to works by Helen Frankenthaler, as examples of the same thing - though with very different results.
But there is also in these graphite images a somewhat different direction. I mentioned narrative, and I do indeed see in the work a form of episodic storytelling. Cook is a poet as well as a painter. Modern poems are often fragmented tales, the rags and shreds of dreams. The intermittencies of their progressions are designed to force the reader to make great imaginative and speculative leaps. For me these paintings - or drawings - do a somewhat similar thing. One noticeable thing about them is their tendency to place the spectator actually within the picture-space: this is something they share with the so-called 'dune landscapes' which are an early stage in the development of the Dutch 17th century landscape tradition. Placed thus within the imagined space, rather than looking into it from outside (as through a window), attention becomes centrifugal: the eye journeys not directly towards the horizon, but almost at random, ricocheting off one form and then another. The effect is intensified because the horizon, where it is indicated at all, is usually placed very high - one looks down, and the ground itself slopes gently upwards, or seems to do so. In these circumstances the composition becomes an enclosed world - one might almost say a hortus conclusus in the medieval sense: a kind of small artificial paradise. But the tendency towards the precious is immediately contradicted by the fact that everything remains in monochrome - these are dreams reported, but not dreams offered as a shared experience.
It is sometimes said - even by visual artists - that music is creatively the most testing of the arts, because the composer of music has to create everything from the beginning. Even the most pictorial of musical compositions - Richard Strauss's early tone-poems for example - have to rely on approximations, sounds which are metaphors for appearances, the sense of hearing being always more ambiguous in the information it delivers than the sense of sight. On the other hand figurative art is tied to appearances - if the artist reshapes what is familiar too drastically, the spectator loses his or her way. In this new series Christopher Cook threads a complex path. If one tries to analyse any particular composition one soon becomes aware that what seemed at first familiar has been subtly changed in various ways to suit the artist's intention: that this is never a mirror held up to nature, but a mirror which reflects the functioning of a particular, very specific kind of subjectivity. This subjectivity has of course been released - allowed to expose itself for what it is - by two factors in particular. One has been the progress of Modernism during a period of almost a century: the great modern artists have gradually trained a new audience for art, and we now have much less prejudiced ways of looking than those which prevailed at the beginning of our epoch. The other is undoubtedly photography: from the beginning photographs fascinated by their literalism. Fox Talbot, one of the major pioneers, called the collection of images he published 'The Pencil of Nature'. While we now, in the digital age, have been taught to mistrust the veracity of photographs, we still tend to cling to a simplistic contrast between photographic literalism on the one hand and other approaches to making images on the other.
I think a particularly fascinating aspect of the series of images included in this show is that the very personal technique Christopher Cook has chosen allows us to think of them as cousins to photography, while at the same time all the ideas we commonly attach to the notion of the photographic image have been systematically subverted. If one of Freud's patients had been able to bring him actual samples of what was seen in dreams, not mere descriptions, perhaps they would have looked like this: snapshots from a camera with access to some of the deepest levels of the mind.