TK I was looking forward to this talk not only as a Curator, but also - or should I say mainly - as an artist who also studied oil painting. Could you say a little about the sources of the work?
CC The monochromatic work in graphite has been going for 8 years now. Before that, my painting was in colour and you could say it related to an English landscape tradition and also to a period of time spent in Italy. I thought these to be the fundamental reference points of my practice until the monochrome series began.
TK Can you suggest examples of artists from this English tradition?
CC Perhaps an artist such as Paul Nash. He worked between the World Wars and what was interesting for me about Nash was that he belonged to a spiritual tradition of landscape painting, but also witnessed this landscape devastated by war. The combination of that spiritual undertow and an understanding of those destructive influences was a powerful motor for him.
TK Do you feel you are carrying that tradition forward - I mean the stream from Nash, to the landscape paintings of 'thorny' impression, for instance, Graham Sutherland and thereafter to Francis Bacon.
CC Mm. Perhaps. But another appealing thing about Nash was that he was influenced by the international Surrealist movement and for someone working within the English tradition this was unusual. During wartime this surrealist background enabled him to deal with a completely different range of subject matter, to with aggression, destruction and with unconscious energies – and this is why he as such an interesting model for me.
TK It sounds like an unstable form of landscape, imaginary things, something a bit off from the reality. How could this relate to the Italian images?
CC The first thing to say is that when you grow up as a painter in Europe you feel as if you need to know those Italian images anyway, so on one level it's just a basic painterly education. But having seen the fresco images, their extraordinary freshness despite the complexity and the ambition of them. In particular the combination of very strong narrative with what seems like the performance, the making in the moment – that notion of having to build up to a moment of making was a real discovery.
TK So did you feel stuck in this tradition?
CC Actually it was after coming back from Italy, the experience was so powerful that it felt a bit intimidating and it laid down a challenge that it was almost impossible to surpass, the quality of those images, this produced a problem.
TK Was this to do with motivation, or were you just overwhelmed by the images? What was preventing you?
CC It didn't prevent me entirely, it was just I felt the images were becoming almost a homage to that tradition and that I was losing my imaginative autonomy.
TK So you went to India...?
CC (Laughs) it wasn't so immediate a response. I returned to England in 1989 and it wasn't until 5 years later I went to India and those 5 years were spent working through with this same problem. I should say that some of the images were successful on their own terms and I was exhibiting them in London, so it wasn't as though they were all terrible. It was just that I sensed an imaginative problem in myself...it was more an internal thing I was experiencing, it wasn't even a problem with making the work. Perhaps I felt I wasn't moving forward, not progressing.
TK The British tradition is more one of sculpture. Did you have a particular reason to stick to painting?
CC I think I'd always felt that painting was what came naturally to me and this applies to many people. Sure, it's true that in Britain there was a very strong international sculptural tradition and if you wanted to be taken seriously as an artist this was maybe the best cause to belong to. But the thing about painting for me was always the very intimate, introspective and fulfilling quality of the act.
TK I have experienced a period when I was unable to paint anything, since no image came up inside me and I felt a white canvas was frightening. Then, I discovered that imagination within painting requires particular strategies to free oneself from the white canvas. By changing my medium and method it helped to unblock me.
CC I think the white canvas, or white paper can be intimidating and one reason Surrealism was interesting to me as a method is that it allows you to begin with anything, so a lot of the initial phases of working can be really playful, experimenting and then the important moment is the response, the reaction, to what is developing. I suppose I should make it clear that we are taking about a Surrealism that belongs to Paul Klee or Max Ernst and not of Dali.
TK My impression of your work is that you are not only trying to represent something but trying to extract some images. Trying to create a scenario and then some images may be extracted from that scene. Is this right?
CC It will be a combination. Whilst I'm working in the studio a kind of history builds up, a store of images that you remember physically. One of the interesting strategies is to resist their recurrence by experimenting, by trying different methods, by pushing away from it, but some inevitably return. A lot of painting is about turning up in the studio and trying many different ideas and being prepared for them all to wiped away at the end of each day.
TK So are you waiting for something to happen while you are doing something else and eventually develop new images from it? Do you practice something similar to Da Vinci's stain on the wall? Are some images from accidents?
CC The accidents are important to openly stimulate my imagination, but it would be too idealistic to say that each image was born of responding to what emerged, again because of this history, of having made many series of images in the same studio. Eventually, you begin to recognise ideas too quickly, so the strategy has to be a little bit different, sometimes with a familiar idea in mind, sometimes with nothing at all.
TK Does this mean that you cannot create the same thing twice?
CC Part of the strength of this medium, has been for me, is the fact that there always seems so much to do, so many new possibilities. That was an important recognition and different from the oil painting I was making, that always had the same kind of ritual. With these, depending on where I begin, all of the rules may change on each occasion.
TK So in fact, it does have no meaning for you to create similar things again. Are you able to make studies for the works?
CC No, hardly at all.
You could call some of the smaller works studies in a way – studies for individual marks, but working on the aluminium in particular each day, either there is a success, or it is a rehearsal – in which, some things work and some things go wrong, but everything is removed. The following day I may try the same process, so maybe for each image there are weeks of failure, rehearsals in a way, so these are the studies.
I imagine it is the same for you in your work? I presume you don't prepare too much or make too many studies and that you respond to the site so that things can change quite quickly?
TK I do make some drawings, but actually based on the assumption I may not be able to realise that idea. I do sometimes make models and maquettes. Sometimes it's a way of reflecting an exercise to me. It reminds me of Rodin's attitude to drawings and studies.
CC And it is important not to know if the finished product will be the same, so there's still an unpredictable energy about the making.
TK The most difficult part of my work, as perhaps for any artist - is where to finish and complete the potentially endless work. You are in your studio doing this series of rehearsals again and again but how do you decide when something is finished?
CC One of the interesting restrictions of the medium is that I only have maybe about 36 hours in which to work – it begins like a painting and after a day becomes more like a drawing, but after 36 hours things are starting to dry. So first of all I have to work whole days and if I have a sense that things are going in the right direction then I have to follow it through and this emphasises the performance aspect of the work. But by that stage I know quite a lot about what has happened from previous rehearsals and quite a lot about the kinds of marks and kinds of qualities that are beginning to interest me in that image.
TK A 30 hour performance can be very physically demanding since total concentration is needed.
CC It has to be intensive. Although, for example, this graphite here is an exception as there are two layers. Part of it was made in one session and I thought I'd reached the end then I realised it was not enough, so then I tried new sessions. Generally, layers don't tend to work with this medium but in this case I feel it succeeded. There are very few that have layers that I'm satisfied with.
TK In trying to apply the second layer the first layer is made to disappear?
CC Yes it begins to be eroded.
TK That's very interesting, so you really do have one performance?
CC Certainly working with this brings back the connection with fresco – not in an exact sense but the idea of the synopia on the plaster, also the site-specific nature of fresco and then you have your moment to make it work.
TK In fresco the surface is also very sensitive and hard to reverse. The work has to be done before the surface starts to dry. I'm thinking of Michelangelo's section-by-section, day-by-day approach. Site-specific work. Now I'm beginning to connect what you did with the experience in Italy.
CC Although I wouldn't call these graphites site specific in any true sense – the site is just the rectangle and they can be made in any studio.
TK Do you have any rules about the scale or size of the rectangle?
CC Some rules are arbitrary such as...
TK ...the size of the studio?
CC Size of studio, yes and the size I can obtain the paper in, or the maximum size of the aluminium sheet, though I've not yet used the maximum sized sheet. In particular with the aluminium, because I am working it horizontally but like to be able to pick it up at any point to use gravitational flow, it has to be light enough and also of a width that I can handle, so that I can physically interact with it.
TK Is this the material that is best for your work right now?
CC It seems to be, the aluminium with a primed coat was first used to simulate the quality of the paper, so I was satisfied there was sufficient connection. It too is very resistant to my medium and also because the first aluminium images were used for the residency at the Eden Project, I liked the industrial quality it had. Also, the way it hangs has a rawness and simplicity to it that seemed to bring something new to the work.
TK Earlier on you talked about how you imagine into your work, but sometimes your work looks like landscape images from photographs. I might have the reverse impression seeing your work - lots the intimate outside, but also a lot of layers – related ideas, technical inventions, marks you have developed, all these layers that actually imply you are bringing images out, something like the automatic processes of Surrealism, images deriving from the processes?
CC Yes that's right. I suppose one of the important points about believing in the automatist principle is that your unconscious is full of some things you don't know, but also things that you experience every day, so that as it comes back up it is not really all to do with a deep-seated Freudian or Jungian unconscious, but also a much closer more intimate level, things that have become important to you, such as particular land forms, - a secondary unconscious.
TK I was wondering, - my practice seems the opposite to your way of working. I need sites to get inspiration always, but you are just in your studio everyday, with music...
CC No music!
TK Just generating Images in your space. I wonder how you get the stock of images? Do you go outside refresh?
CC I'm not in the studio everyday; I want to be as alive as possible at other times! Maybe this is where periods of time spent in different places feed back. One of the reasons I found it hard to make work in Italy and India was because of the strength of the experience of the cultural information. So it's like Wordsworth's emotion recollected in tranquillity, the remembered experience of that time becomes the fuel for the next period in solitary. The practice is then less about appropriating another culture, more about its effect on consciousness.
But its true that when I'm not in the studio say when I'm travelling in a perhaps in a car or a train or walking then that is an important time to look around its a valuable time to look around
TK I imagine you like a Buddhist monk going into the studio. (Laughter)
CC a painter needs the right kind of personality – you have to be able to spend a lot of time with yourself – it would be the same for a writer too. If you don't like yourself then you are in trouble.
Christopher Cook speaking in his exhibition 'Recent Experimental Graphites' , Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan,
22 November 2005 as part of the Yokohama Triennale.
Chairwoman: Naoko Shoji | Interpreter: Toshiko | Translator: Ikumi Kawabata