In his Exeter studio there stands a graphite-encrusted table and a trolley with dried-up oil colours. Painting is not currently in favour with Christopher Cook, whose work oscillates between poetry and painting and painting and drawing - opposing phases which also include overlapping periods and, overall, form an intricate web that relates to different places and experiences, to art history and topical themes, to the archetypal and the autobiographical.
After the mysterious nocturnal drawings of 1988-92, exhibited and published together with his poems by the Beaford Centre in Devon, and a first visit to India (two more were to follow) came the California Pleasure Dome series, a variation on a disconcerting play on kitsch, using the trivial symbols of a supposedly intact world -we've all seen them, those little plexiglass domes which are shaken to produce a snowstorm around the Eiffel Tower, the Heidelberg Castle, the Bethlehem Stable.
Christopher Cook situates them in a world that is anything but intact, in one that is, rather, grey and damaged, where concrete walls stand around as dispassionate as the shells ot bunkers, against a backdrop ot mountains as majestic as they are menacing, where pale yellow light tails on dirty snow - not a brightening luminescence but a contaminating, death-strip glare - in a world where darkly lecherous men with binoculars set out to watch the spectacle happening on the other side of a blood-tilled river: a paradisically naked couple is at it under palm trees and an azure sky. Porn video? Peep-Show? A vision from another world? Eco-haven of a ruined civilisation? Remembrance? Utopia? Vanity? Hope?
A maypole has been erected, made of colourful bird-of-paradise feathers, as a peculiar prop, evidently a sort of totem. Commenting on another, equally disturbing picture from the "Pleasure Dome" series, in which the glass dome, protective and preserving like a reliquary, but also provocatively bloodred, vaunts a lingam symbol, Cook observes, As soon as they make themselves an idol, they start fighting."
Content is important to Christopher Cook; not for him the complete openness of abstraction. On the other hand, his works are open in many directions. They are both concrete and complex, narrative, but not illustrative, moral, but by no means didactic. In the large-scale oil paintings, created mostly in the remote studio in Cornwall - some of which have found their way to Exeter and now seem strangely alien next to the new, smaller works - the content also determines the composition: the contrast between opposing areas that are related to each other dialectically.
Form and content are one in the works of Christopher Cook. His work can undoubtedly be considered within the context of the Surrealist tradition, yet this observation says little about the originality with which Cook realizes his visions and employs his formal means. The principle of the confrontation of the disparate per se does not interest this artist in the slightest. It is more reasonable to speak, along with Heinrich Klotz, of a continuity of the Modern - than of an art of reprises.
In parallel with the oil paintings new graphic works have emerged which, in terms of choice of motif and formal structure, are certainly related to those already mentioned, even if the technique is completely different. The word graphic is obviously related to the word graphite; it is not, however, derived from it. On the contrary: the soft material, a crystalline variant of the element Carbon, of which all organic matter is made, and chemically identical to one of the hardest, purest and most precious materials that the universe has brought forth, the diamond, is admirably suited to drawing (Greek, graphein) - whence the name. But Christopher Cook does not use this material to draw. Instead, he mixes it with resin and oil into suspensions that he pours over sheets of smooth-coated cardboard and then works in an elaborate way.
Initially Cook had blended graphite into his oils, but the results did not convince him. And so ultimately, as previously mentioned, painting was - at least for the time being - completely eliminated. Time for a change of scene: the new pictures were all produced in the Exeter studio. With their smoothness and their subtle chiaroscuro nuances, they sometimes look like photographs, all the more so in light of the "problem of the margins" that troubles the artist. I advise against trimming the sheets, finding the "blurredness" of the surrounding contour to be an intriguing formal element, reminiscent of the edges of the superimposed layers of faded daguerreotypes, gnawed at by the tooth of time.
Of course the viewer wonders how these fascinating grisailles -almost all of which are horizontal in format and thus can be viewed as landscapes, which in most cases is validated by the motif - were produced. The artist willingly supplies information: The "graphite sludge", a kind of "primal soup", is pushed around on the coated surface, with a piece of the same material serving as an implement. I ask Christopher Cook whether he knows the "Informal" works of Karl Otto Goetz, who "invented" a technique that is quite similar, though based on completely different formal concepts. Cook is not familiar with them - the significance of the German "informal" movement does not seem to have yet established itself in art history awareness in England.
What makes these works special compared with paintings whose "message" is grounded not least in the motif - as, for instance, when an image starts out as a paraphrase of a Bellini Madonna, which in the further course of the work disappears under a sheet and finally turns into a Matterhorn, which makes the artist think of an upside-down map of the Indian subcontinent - is that the image arises out of the working process. This is done not by simply predicting the process as with any artistic product, but by expressly using the work process as the subject matter.
The surrealist method of "letting oneself be surprised by what is found" and "reacting to this" relates Cook's creations to the work of the Surrealists and the Informals; but even wore, it connects his older works with his newer ones. The development of each work is planned only to a limited degree, yet neither is it unprogrammed in every sense. Certain ideas serve as a point of departure, for instance, the previously mentioned decision to contrast opposing areas with each other, such as a simple, quiet, predictable, compact zone with one that is more complex, multilayered, rich in motifs and filled with movement. This contrast becomes a consistent principle of Cook's works. The details of the contrast emerge from the work process: light produces shadow, brightness produces darkness. Cook's works do not describe, but rather let analogies emerge; landscape becomes visible cot as reproduction, but as model.
At its most basic level - and here lies the connection between picture and primal image, between the reality of the depicted and that of the depiction - this is less a painterly process than a plastic or sculptural one. Nothing is simulated or staged as a trompe l'oeil. Instead, the picture is modelled through the accretion or removal of matter, even if this process occurs in no more than the microscopic range. Processes of sedimentation and erosion analogous to nature are "recreated", as it were, in the graphic process; and the artist surely cannot be indifferent to the fact that he is not using just any material, but a primary element of Creation - one in which the Earth's history manifests in a special way, and which, beyond this, is the most important component of all life.
This is augmented by the ambivalence of the smooth, soft graphite, which, of course, is also used as a lubricant. What a contrast with the hardness of diamonds! Christopher Cook had to repaint the floor of his studio - that's how slippery it had become from the graphite pouring. Graphite iridesces, chameleon-like, between dark and light, between carbon and diamond. its shimmer and shine reveal something of the elementary poles and rhythms between which life stretches - between day and night, between earth and fire. And indeed, for Cook the work with this material results from a need that painting could not satisfy: to work directly with matter, not simply to reflect Nature in the image, but to enter into immediate contact with her. This is a way of working that has something to do with being connected with the Earth, with a typically northern experience of landscape. He points out to me the vaulting consoles, richly decorated with leaf patterns, of the beautiful Exeter Cathedral, reproducing elements of Nature that the missionaries - particularly Saint Boniface, who made a name for himself in Germany by cutting down forests - initially tried to stamp out, but then, in a psychologically more sophisticated fashion, were able to integrate into the new faith.
If we look at Cook's graphites more closely, in addition to landscape-like structures and reminiscences of different kinds - including onus whose parallel perspective conjures up images of Indian miniatures, or of Asian ink drawings, which exhibit a comparable virtuosity in the handling of the black and white parameters - we find again and again decided references to details of Nature, from the mineral, the animal, the plant realm. Cook likes to introduce nature into the image in circuitous ways: the movement of the modelling tool produces forms that are tunnel-like, but unexpectedly, the motif, as hi-tech as it is archetypal as it is historically charged - think of Henry Moore's Shelter series, or nowadays, of course, the new tunnel under the Channel - mutates into an equivocal metaphor: a shell, a fan made of feathers. Or: out of mannered, elaborate forms (not just since his trips to India has Cook been interested in formal gardens as an attempt to overcome and sublimate nature, in the decadent escapades of decorative art in both East and West) though concrete influences can be detected, something emerges that ultimately is very close to the original forms of nature. The circle is closed, the candelabrum becomes an octopus, bucolic images are evoked.
This interests Christopher Cook above all: the tension between deja vu on the one hand and a completely new way of looking at the familiar, and thus the zone in which transformation occurs, on the other. For Cook, the bipartition of numerous compositions, mentioned above, has much to do with the experience gained on beaches, both at home and in the East, of the pulsating, oscillating boundary between the elements, between the solid and the liquid, the place where things are deposited or eroded away, where something crashes against an obstacle, where the sea gives and takes, creates and destroys life, where stasis is experienced as a result of movement and change, and movement and change as arising from stasis. Ephemeral forerunners of the graphites, preserved only in photographs, are the sand pictures created in 1996 on the banks of the Ganges. Existing for only a few minutes, Cook chose to preserve some, and used them as an element in his artists' book, Dust on the Mirror.
In Christopher Cook's graphites it is not least the beach landscapes that, iridescing strangely between abstraction and almost hyperrealistic, photographic representationalism based on the analogy of the work process, seem to move towards this liminal zone - as concrete art and a metaphor for existential experience in one.
Heidelberg, December 1998
Hans Gercke is an art historian and Director of the Heidelberger Kunstverein.