The British painter Nigel Cooke combines realism with abstraction in canvases that seem to represent scenes of urban decay. In Cooke’s atmospheric works—some of which measure more than twelve feet in length—foregrounds populated by detailed depictions of debris are juxtaposed with airy, nearly abstract backgrounds that evoke crumbling concrete walls tinged with graffiti. The Modern’s FOCUS exhibition features seven works by Cooke, including one newly completed canvas making its debut.
Many of Cooke’s works contain specific references to the history of painting. In Sore Eyes, 2005, a ghostly apparition, most likely based on Vincent van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear of 1889, smokes a cigarette. Van Gogh’s famous wound, however, is upstaged by the titular sore eyes, which are composed of dripping slashes of red paint. Projecting a battered weariness, the image brings to mind the many intensely personal expressions that have become icons of Art History 101—worn-out veterans of expressionist symbolism. Other canvases by Cooke allude to works by modern painters, such as Philip Guston and Francis Bacon.
While on the one hand Cooke’s imagery presents the possibility of a depleted cultural landscape, it also projects an air of curiosity about the future of painting and an acceptance of the ironies that can create beauty out of desolation. The light in Cooke’s paintings characterizes this aesthetic—simultaneously golden, acid yellow, and ashen grey, it suggests the beauty of a chemical sunset.
Cooke was born in Manchester, England, and has recently relocated his home and studio from London to Canterbury. He received his MA in Painting in 1997 from the Royal College of Art and his PhD in Fine Art in 2004 from Goldsmiths College in London. In 2004 he had a solo exhibition, Art Now, at Tate Britain in London, and his work has been included in group exhibitions in Israel, the United States, Venezuela, Brazil, and Spain. Cooke’s work is held in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Tate Modern, London; and the British Council, London.