john furse : The recent works - that you refer to as the graphites - contain qualities that were clearly there ten or more years ago, but are in fact quite different. I see them differently. when I visited your Porthleven studio early in 1997 I recall experimental works which with hindsight appear responsible for that development.

christopher cook : I think that's right, although the need for change had been gathering momentum for some while, I think, because I was going through a difficult period in my work, a soul-searching period in a way, and that was part of the reason for being in Porthleven.

Away from the familiarity of the Exeter studio?

Yes, certainly, because I was questioning my earlier paintings. In particular their reliance on a set of personal symbols.

You had just returned from your third prolonged visit to India, and I know from earlier conversations that this was having a profound effect upon you, particularly with respect to the image-making.

India was an important catalyst in changing the work to say the least. You could say it was the source of the questioning, that the country allowed me to see why I was becoming dissatisfied with my work.

Work or specific works?

Work in general, a period of work that has not been shown. Not so different to other work you know, but there was something lacking.

Was Porthleven a way of unpacking the experience of India?

I think that's it. I couldn't see a way of resolving my earlier 'studio presence' in Exeter with what I feel driven to explore afterwards. So I jumped at the opportunity of Porthleven as a way of avoiding that friction.

So Porthleven was a no-man's land, a limbo?

Not exactly - I already knew that area of Cornwall, and the rawness of it appealed, the strong presence of the sea. I think I tell it could reduce my emotional temperature, maybe allow me to think clearly about how to go about work. How to absorb what I had been feeling and observing in India into a way of working.

Was what you made in the rented studio in India [2] useful in this respect?

Not really. I was happy for those drawings to be exhibited, [3] but I saw them as preliminaries, "getting-to-know-you" studies, rather than resolved works, and I was finding their exuberance hard to sustain.

In the light of what you were seeing?

No, it you mean because of the poverty, because it was already an aspect of that response and a feature of the work. An artist generally worries about himself first, I'm afraid. They were hard to sustain simply because they did not relate to anything that had gone before, and could at times seem indulgent. I hadn't earned the exuberance, I'd just walked into it.

So was this exuberance and squalor something you wished to deal with, back in England?

I suppose it relates a little to what I said about Cornwall - it is an extraordinary coast, very beautiful, especially by the shoreline, but it can also be unforgiving, harsh, ugly even. In India those extremes of beauty and ugliness were pushed so close together as to seem inseparable. Take the bank of the Ganges, for example. You'd find scraps of silver and silk and marigolds, tangled together with flesh and refuse and excrement. It would be possible to speak in terms of contrast, but that was not the feeling - it was more one of interdependence, and I suppose I found this true of the whole country, that closeness of shit and silk sari. I tried to work this into the book, but I think it was beyond me at that time.

It reminds me of your quote from Rilke at the time of your 1986 Spacex exhibition: "For Beauty's nothing but beginning of terror we're still just able to bear, and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us " [4] and at the time I commented "what we see is both beautiful and terrifying. The stark imagery owes something to Goya's Disasters of War, and the Decadents - the symbolism of the non-believer and it seems that some of this resurfaces here." [5] How did you go about trying to connect the extremes, was it a matter of process?

I think process has always been the key, even when the painting seems to be at it most narrative it is the key. When it's right it allows me to be totally 'in' the work, which is the moment that artists of all kinds crave for - a being absorbed by something else, like love, for instance. So the discovery of a simple flexible process reminded me that among all the symbolism and symbolic colour of earlier works, all those references and narratives, the joy was actually in the making. It was the making that allowed the extremes to connect, just as the way - no, the spirit - of life in India appeared to connect the extremes. Does this sound too E.M. Foster? Symbol implying a unification, a bringing together. I think the question was more - is the symbol located in the painting, or has the painted object itself become that symbol?

So can I take it that it was in India you found the upheaval necessary to break from the traditions of western Art - or English art that had been your preoccupation. what had been your 'instinct' was no longer so?

I'm not sure about the Western Art. I can see that I always sought after upheaval of one kind or another, mostly the upheaval of subjecting myself and family to a new situation or culture, as in the years in Italy. The new situation asks questions of the creative act. But if might be that in India I finally faced this requirement, admitted to the artifice of if maybe, because at times it was too strong. It was impossible to play either the cultural tourist or the academic. And as you say it was impossible to hold on to certain attitudes.

If we look back at your comments of ten years ago, when "moments of vision [occurred] only when the mind is free of the present, of the mechanics of everyday conscious life. To be free of the present and of the ego, and thus to gain access to the mythic and the timeless, one must be dislocated in some way.... Great beauty is itself a dislocating force, as is love, terror, obscenity. " [6] it sounds as though that applied in India and still remains valid?

Yes. Perhaps before India it was more of an idea - from someone like Bataille - than a real experience. I constantly want to surprise myself, I'm greedy and impatient in that way. But the rules are constantly changing and you get to know your own strategies - as with that previous idea of constantly moving your situation - you recognise what you are doing and then their usefulness is lost.

When I saw the work in the Porthleven studio, you had just started to work on the heavy coated paper on which the graphites now depend. How did that new process start? Was Porthleven of prime importance or was it the paper itself that most mattered?

It is always hard to separate decisions of process from the immediate situation, but I can say that the paper was certainly essential. I'd been given it to try out and if was lucky I had it to hand. The experience of working on it was a throwback to the acrylic primed paper I worked on at the Royal College when Ken Kiff suggested it could give luminosity to lift the colour. But I remember what I most enjoyed was the fluidity that came with it, encouraging me to improvise with much more daring and less compromise. So in the graphites, the fluidity is again important, but that immaculate paper surface now gives me something different, a quality at once deadpan but also filled with mystery. That combination was so important that the reference to Porthleven - to answer your question, was perhaps secondary, and certainly the sacrifice of the colour was relatively painless.

As with black and white photography?

You mean useful as with black and white photography? There might be a similarity. A black and white photograph instantly transforms the coloured world we know, which can be a great advantage. At the same time, because of an early connection with documentation and the media, it can carry a relatively mundane quality. The magic of the ordinary. Although that is now familiar to colour photography too. In 1988 I regarded the work as "an acceptance that the spiritual and the mundane have much in common" and I'd stick by that.

But presumably India changed your definitions of both those states?

Definitely - the spiritual became possible for me as simply "a living in joy", to refer back to that aspect of process I was talking of. This was apparent even in the most dire circumstance, and it is still hard to totally comprehend if. But once you begin to consider the spiritual in this way the idea of transcendence leaves the room, everything can become infused, or luminous.

An isolated once-upon-a-time Cornish fishing village is far removed from the disturbing vision of 'exuberant squalor' and perhaps you turned to the seashore to make the link - to watch the 'tainted succulence' washed up day by day on the rocks?

The shore had many things going for if, and I think it probably did relate in my mind to India in some way. First of all it was right there, beside my studio, bringing objects and patterns to me, then erasing them, resensitizing the sand, a kind of artist at work. I think what impressed and convinced me was the detail I found there, perhaps comparable to some of those Indian surfaces, a highly wrought even elegant slime.

Again I sense a certain decadence, that 'adoration of a beauty that disdains to destroy us'.

I think in all of the drawings I made in Mysore, decoration was a key element, and I was finding aspects of that on the shore.

As an orientalising force perhaps?

You mean the decoration? I think in India the decorative is deeply embraced, a serious business really, not at all decadent - but in a kind of conspiracy with the mathematical and microscopic, definately not an indulgent whim but more of a deep insight info Nature.

But wouldn't colour be the natural ally of the decorative?

Well, you'd think so. The austerity of the grey maybe removed any fear I might have of excess, remembering the indulgence of the earlier drawings. But the other connection is perhaps with the sand drawings which seem to revel in decoration but also confine themselves to the one colour, the sand.

These are the two images in the book?

Yes. There were in fact more than twenty of them which I recorded on slide. At the time I had some misgivings about photographing them, so I was half expecting it when I lost the slide set during a lecture tour. So the two in the book are actually the only two that remain.

You've since made some more, do they have the same meaning?

Those later sand drawings came directly out of the experience of working with the graphite powder, which encouraged the performing of an image, a kind of brinkmanship. The graphites would all come to something or to nothing. Working with sand supported the discipline - they might take two or twenty minutes, but they always felt like a long process in which the mind was totally engaged, making many decisions, but the bare fact of success or failure usually happening without any form of warning, just occurring.

So the sand drawings might partially explain why many of the graphites imply or suggest a 'downward gaze'?

I like that. Although it's more complicated because the downward gaze had been happening over a few years, even before India. I'd often painted on the horizontal mainly for practical reasons, but at some point it must have dawned on me that the composition could benefit too from a relaxation of the demands of the horizon. I think what it did was bring me closer to my subject, making it more intimate, more like a still life. And there was also the admission that the universal, if it were still desired, would only be possible through intimacy, through the grain of sand.

And that would explain the reduced level of symbolism and narrative...

\u2026which would invoke wider thought systems and so distract the attention from the here and now.

So to some extent it also reflects a giving up of the standard Western attitude. Could the concern with closeness and surface suggest what I might say is a less masculine approach to the world?

I haven't really thought about it in that way, I suppose there is a possible connection to be made again through the sand drawings because they were prompted in part by Rangolis [10] which are usually domestic rituals and therefore almost always drawn by the women. They are abstract and elegant, but also totally and literally earthbound, and I found that combination persuasive.

So are you also suggesting that elements of the performed have entered the work, and does this relate to the continual improvisation with which you were preoccupied earlier?

That's a key question, although I don't feel there is a similar level of improvisation in the work, even though the current technique would permit radical changes to be made. The graphites are made at a taster pace, and the experimentation seems to occur through a sequence - from work to work - rather than on the single work as a layer or editing, so I suppose the mention of performance is useful.

As in the sand drawings...

Or the beach itself. Most of the graphites have been remade from scratch several times, as with the sea cleaning the sand, the first attempts having been cleaned away, whereas previously I had been leaving layers and building on successful parts, as a kind of accumulation. The graphite process encourages a far more unified surface, and I've gone along with this, maybe because of that somewhat photographic reference the single skin of the graphite can invoke.

If you are not so reliant on improvisation - of recognising forms raised in the process which seize your imagination and become the work, are you now saying you are beginning with more resolved ideas?

I thought you'd be keen to establish that. In most cases I am beginning with a stronger idea, including the desire to try a new take on known themes, such as the mountain or the tunnel, but I wouldn't like to suggest I'm getting what I want all the time. The imagery is deeply affected by the medium, and it can take me on a totally unexpected route. I'd say that when this works - when I find myself somewhere else, somewhere fascinating after being lost - the images seem to be at their strongest again.

Because they are new to you?

Yes, because they are new, because I have found something important I hadn't previously realised.

That suggests that one of the most important developments in the work is the relationship between the India-derived decorative and concepts of decay or disease, which I recognize in microscopic form.

Yes, there are some microscopic forms floating around, and I think it does relate to India, but it is the specific quality of the graphites that has allowed the idea to be developed. It is very sensitive to small touches, the microscopic, in a way. There's also something of the Baroque in there, and maybe the Decadents that you previously mentioned.

Or a Decadent?

You mean such as Des Esseintes?

Who you refer to in one title?

In a way, Landscape at Fontenay [11], his garden I suppose. I remembered the description of the black dinner where coal is spread on the borders and he plants cypresses and allows black delicacies only to be eaten, and it struck me as ideal subject for the graphite series. When I re-read the book it again had a strong effect, and I now want to use For and Against Nature as title for the collection of poems I'm working on. If seems like Virtual Reality before its time, a great and very disturbing vision of the triumphs and tribulations of the life of the imagination.

Does your poetry relate closely to the new work?

I view it as a relationship in which the partners retain their individual identity to derive energy from the difference. There will certainly be themes in common, but there has been no clear shift such as the one to monochrome in the way I have been using language. The renewed engagement with the poetry may have reduced the literal in the painting.

When I last interviewed you, when I saw the work as more literal, you were in your late twenties. Now we are ten years on. Your India visits dominated the middle years of a decade that was a problematic one for Painting.Is this coincidental? Should we be talking about a mid-career crisis? For instance, was there an element of escape?

More of removal.

To allow a reassessment?

Well, I don't see the decision as provoked by some kind of crisis because I'd always wanted to see India, so in a way the decision was the opposite, it was a confrontation of something inevitable but resisted. But you're right in that I did know that I was removing myself from a changing art world, and therefore I suppose also from the pressure to sustain success.

So that the work could change?

I don't know about that. It was not so considered. Develop would be OK, because wherever you go, the work can develop with you. But in the end the work appears to have emerged from that period of doubting or faltering with a refreshed sense of continuing exploration.

You make occasional visits to Porthleven but the best of the graphites - as I see it have been made in the Exeter studio. I take it that you have resettled?

The studio has taken centre stage again. I want to show what's been gained now.

So that means India has played its part?

Well, if plays a different part.

So you intend to return?

I'll take that smile as a 'yes'