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Nigel Cooke: A Portrait Of Everything (South London Gallery)

Feature by James Haddrell

JAKE Chapman, the younger of the somewhat infamous Chapman brothers, is credited with the discovery of the South London Gallery’s latest exhibitor, Nigel Cooke, and it is easy to see the Chapmans’ influence in Cooke’s work.

Both utilise childlike illustration but layer it with morbid, pessimistic imagery; both represent artists in the pre-conceptual sense, hand-crafting their own work with meticulous attention to detail, be it sculpture, painting or illustration, and both draw on established artistic genres in order to subvert them (the Chapmans, most famously, with their defaced series of Goya’s etchings, and Cooke with his challenges to the traditional genres of both landscape and memento mori).

However, where the Chapmans thrive on the act of anarchic desecration, whether of an etching by Goya or the schematic line drawings of a children’s colouring book, Cooke’s work is both more beautiful and more complex.

The first work on show at the South London Gallery, Brain Party, sets the tone. At the bottom of the canvas a meticulously painted patch of stony scrubland gives a sense of weight and depth to the base of the image, a large rock and a broken sapling the only notable features in the dusty landscape, but this is where the realism ends.

Behind the area of earth a solid wall (or, ironically, a solid canvas) fills the picture space. Onto this Cooke has painted a giant piece of graffiti, a giant brain smoking a cigarette, which may be a comment on the dead landscape which surrounds it, but which could equally be a broader comment on the drug induced ruin of modern intelligence.

Whilst the styles of foreground and background are clearly different, the work is not simply a juxtaposition of landscape and dreamscape, of traditional painting and comic book doodle.

The scrubland, painted as if it is the ‘true’ part of the scene, casts a shadow onto the vertical plane behind it, locking both into the same space. Both are palpably there. What’s more, the canvas seems to be damaged by cigarette burns, the surface of the work, which exists in our own real world, damaged by the cartoon cigarette.

In Morning Has Broken, one of the largest and richest works on display, the idea of graffiti spills out into the foreground.

At the front, as in all of the paintings, a detailed landscape sets up a feeling of space, this time a muddy area of wasteland covered with patches of dirty snow.

At the back, a few bushes struggle to survive in the barren soil. Painted with the attention to detail of the sublime landscape painter, nothing could be less sublime than this abandoned patch of dying land.

In the foreground a concrete structure, its purpose unclear, is daubed with graffiti. On the flat plane at the back, a flat yellow sun gives the ‘morning’ its artificial rising sun. (It is impossible to look at this pessimistic sunrise without thinking of Olafur Eliasson’s celebratory Weather Project, which bathed the turbine hall at Tate Modern in glowing morning sunshine a few years ago.)

Along the horizon a row of comic-book animal skulls has been added, while a glowing Halloween lantern mirrors the sun with a silent scream. The only life in the scene appears in the form of childish drawings of birds, both on the defaced concrete in the foreground and on the back ‘wall’ of the scene. Defined as graffiti when painted without permission in a public area, and as art when included among the elements of a sublime landscape, Cooke’s birds cross the line between high and ‘criminal’ art.

The most complex of the works on display, and one of the most interesting, is the enigmatically titled Fun. Behind another barren landscape, this time littered with drips of paint and a fragile structure that could be an abandoned easel, a huddled group of monks or pilgrims gather outside a gigantic pink barn, hung with diminutive party balloons.

While the pilgrims offer up a pink skull, or even a decapitated pink head, apparently waiting for something inside the barn, giant crying flowers look down on them and smoke. Connotations of children’s parties, of ‘trick-or-treaters’ at Halloween, and of the story of Christ born in a stable are all undercut with a feeling of surreal misery, while in the foreground, the area traditionally presented as somehow ‘real’ in Cooke’s work, tiny human heads litter the landscape.

The title of the exhibition, Nigel Cooke: A Portrait Of Everything, seems to suggest some sort of world view, some all-encompassing vision represented in the paintings, but in many ways these 10 works represent one man’s very personal, very specific response to art history, challenging the hierarchy which places sublime landscape at one end, and stigmatised, criminalised graffiti art at the other.

Picture Credit: Nigel Cooke, Morning is Broken, 2005 © Nigel Cooke. Courtesy Stuart Shave | Modern Art, London and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

Nigel Cooke: A Portrait Of Everything
Until 14 May 2006
South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London, SE5 8UH.
Tel: 020 7703 6120;
Tuesday – Sunday: 12–6pm; Closed Mondays
Free entry