I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Nigel Cooke’s exhibition at Andrea Rosen features seven new large-scale paintings, some over nine feet tall. Each painting mixes gestural abstraction with small details of figurative realism. The figures cohere with the fluid brushstrokes, while at the same time opening up the viewer’s interpretation. With the emphasis on the abstract, figures such as lovers, sailors, sirens, clowns, chefs, half-wits and smoking flower people appear on the canvas and evoke a half-real, half-conscious dream sequence.
Cooke’s current show of compelling, big paintings represents a pleasant return to ambitious, go-for-the-brass-ring, scotch and cigars art-making, a 1980s salad of expressionist, pop-surreal, symbolist-decadent styles—which is a good thing. Present in the work are prosperous man-child dream accessories like barely legal bikini-clad chicks and a barely street legal road racer. Young professionals will find these painterly fantasies very appealing—they have everything a Wall Street collector fantasizes about, besides the Dow being 20,000.
Cooke’s inspirations come from many sources, but he seems to be looking very carefully at the French symbolist paintings of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he had works by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine on his bedside table, along with a notebook to jot down his richly detailed dreams.
Besides French symbolism, Cooke grabs crucial inspiration from surrealism, abstract expressionism and, especially, British Pop. A touch more Rolling Stones than Beatles, Cooke’s glamorized dream sequences contain everything good about the English, including but not limited to Benny Hill, Monty Python, Beatrix Potter, and Yeats (technically Irish). Yes, Yeats…
We rode in sorrow, with strong hounds three,
Bran, Sgeolan, and Lomair,
On a morning misty and mild and fair.
The mist-drops hung on the fragrant trees,
And in the blossoms hung the bees.
We rode in sadness above Lough Lean,
For our best were dead on Gavra’s green.
Perhaps it’s the plight of islanders like the English to have their art seen through the lens of their nationality. To my eye Cooke’s work examines the lost era of the British Empire. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now), the artist-dandy-gentleman stands at the edge of the self-imagined abyss of an untamed continent, a speck of proper British light in an otherwise darkened world.