Nigel Cooke

On Francis Bacon (Study for a Portrait of van Gogh VI, 1957 and van Gogh in a Landscape, 1957) – Nigel Cooke
These two paintings are from a larger group of assaults on Van Gogh painted in 1957. Bacon works the Dutchman over thoroughly in this riveting series, throwing up a vividness of colour and handling rarely seen elsewhere in his output. There is a magnetic ambivalence to these works that sees Bacon squeezing out his own twisted homage from the contrary need to bury Vincent’s ghost in paint. The man himself is scarcely a shadow, a comical little black spider in a web of ‘expression’, which is the trace of Bacon’s drive to compress the space and make it his own. Although we get to see him up close, he is featureless; carbonised under the glare of the sun (Vincent’s own personal obsession), this charred multi-legged thing with his textbook straw hat and wretched easel has been supplanted by the language he himself set in motion seventy years earlier, on his daily pilgrimage to paint out in the fields and streets surrounding his little yellow house. Pillaging fo
About Face – Nigel Cooke
The colossal faces of young celebrities that towered over you in Richard Phillips’s recent show at White Cube Hoxton Square, in London, recall two generations of Pop art and their attendant critical dialogues, maintaining structural and visual ties to the tradition (a mostly male one, with rare exceptions such as Pauline Boty) of Pop/photography-led painting. Straightaway one thinks of James Rosenquist, Jeff Koons, Mel Ramos and Chuck Close. With this, you get a cogent critical family tree, but you also get a blast of repulsion into the bargain: the monolithic smugness of high-profile pinup types, shown against backdrops plastered with luxury brand logos and painted (seemingly) photorealistically, is hard to like at first, presenting what initially feels like yesterday’s news – announcements of the cult of celebrity’s codependency with mass reproduction and high-end material consumption. Then something else happens.  Standing and looking at these
The Mutt's Nuts – Nigel Cooke
On the eve of the album's release by RCA, the cover for David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974) was presenting problems. It featured Bowie hybridised with a dog, and the record company was convinced that the graphic rendering of the canine’s genitals would cause offence in the conservative radio and retail climate of the time. Consequently, and at the11th hour, executives ordered that the detail be airbrushed out. Copies of the original version – apparently never released, but ‘leaked’ onto the market without a disc inside – are now extremely rare, with collectors willing to pay $6,000–$10,000 for the few examples that exist. We know that censorship creates desirability, and the prices these covers fetch are proof that the occluded object generates curiosity and wonder. The Diamond Dogs case shares similarities with the recent ‘banned’ Kanye West cover by George Condo (discussed elsewhere, in ‘Kanye Dig It’), yet differs in o
The Autopsy of Michael Jackson – Nigel Cooke
What’s more eerie – the King of Pop, the great Michael Jackson, depicted as a frog-like and somewhat unglamorous little corpse on the slab, his stage costume affectionately folded nearby, complete with twinkly glove and trademark white socks? Or the fact that the painting- ‘The Autopsy of Michael Jackson’ (2005), by New York painter Dana Schutz - was made four years before the star’s untimely death in 2009? At the time it was painted, much of the work’s power rested on what then seemed like a far-fetched prospect: the event happening for real - Jackson ultimately dethroned, vulnerable and abjectly factual as merely another body to be cut up and scrutinized. In Schutz’s quasi-futuristic nightmare world, where even the increasingly dehumanized Michael Jackson – of all people – was dead, the scene became almost fantastical, a premonition of some future media-fuelled barbarism and contempt, a universal symbol of voyeuristic inhumanities
George Condo's Elite Pathology – Nigel Cooke
As a contemporary of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, collaborator and friend of William Burroughs and one-time employee of Warhol’s ‘factory’, New York-based artist George Condo’s influence has been wide and deep for over 20 years. In some ways it’s hard to imagine the work of John Currin, Sean Landers or the Chapman Brothers without first thinking of Condo’s bizarre, deranged and hilariously pathological antipodal portraits.  But how can we begin speaking of pathology (malfunction, disease), when what we’re dealing with are easel-sized portraits painted in oils? Such a genteel format feels instinctively at odds with this kind of psychological extreme. Yet the ‘pod people’ of Condo’s paintings – a slavering genealogy of toothy, mouse-eared maniacs - do indeed seem warped by a force beyond their control. The figures themselves seem capable of pathological behaviour, leering foolishly and sometimes aggressivel
Pop Go Your Clogs – Nigel Cooke
At the close of last year, the boys’ club of Pop art history was significantly shaken up by two major exhibitions – Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968 at the Brooklyn Museum and Power Up – Female Pop Art, showing almost concurrently at the Kunsthalle Wien. Both shows included works by Pauline Boty, the British painter who diedof cancer age twenty-eight in 1966, and Belgian artist Evelyne Axell, who died age thirty-seven in a road accident in 1972. While revising perceptions of women’s roles in the evolution of Pop, the exhibitions also brought to mind two careers tragically cut short and posthumously overlooked. It isn’t supposed to work like that. As everyone knows, untimely death can do wonders to an artist’s career. Many a cab driver has pointed this out to me. And with legions of pigment-martyrs who did a lot better after they’d snuffed it backed up through the history of art (with Van Gogh top of the list), why would
The Paintings of Ansel Krut – Nigel Cooke
The colours in the painting may look cheerful at first, but they’re ever so slightly polluted – pinks, turquoises and yellows are dirtied by a brown, or maybe black. And they’re paling here and there, like a felt tip pen that’s running out, or a child’s toy left too long in the sun. The foody-looking gathering of bean/bratwurst forms in the middle of the painting is roughly symmetrical, so the mind finds a face – it’s a perceptual default setting, like a child describing the front end of a car as happy, or sad, or cross. Ansel Krut knows this anthropomorphic programming is both a gift and a curse for painting – the spectator already knows what’s there, but does this prehistoric knowledge close down the possibility of seeing the image in a new way? The organization of Krut’s picture plays between the two, holding both possibilities side by side, at all times. It is the archetype of a face, at once crucial to the identity of the
We're All Raving Mad – Nigel Cooke
Most people in the artworld have at some point found themselves discussing Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s 1960 movie The Rebel, directed by Robert Day and starring Tony Hancock as Anthony Hancock, an office worker trapped in the soulless daily grind of the suburban commuter. His secret passion is art; out of hours, beret on, he turns his flat into a studio in which a host of genre catastrophes take place, among them still-lifes, portraits and stone carvings, much to the consternation of his landlady, Mrs Crevatte. In the face of derision, he flees to Paris seeking artistic credibility and the appreciation of like minds. Success comes quickly, but only as a result of a farcical mix-up in which the works of his talented studiomate, Paul Ashby, get taken for Hancock’s, propelling the wrong artist to stardom and a life of luxury. As a bang-to-bust portrait of the absurdities of the lifestyle of the successful artist, the movie stands as one of the best-loved shibboleth
Kanye Dig It? – Nigel Cooke
As is now widely known, Kanye West has been integrated into the unmistakable painting language of George Condo for the cover of his new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In the most surreal of a range of five covers, we see the rapper in flagrante – supine on the couch, beer in hand and straddled by a bat-eared, armless harpy with spotted tail, wings and hairy legs. West has joined characters such as Rodrigo, Big Red and Little Ricky in Condo’s cast of antipodal subjects, all boxed into a world of shattered faces, screaming lust and teeth-gnashing existential crisis. The response to the album has been clear: it is banned from the shelves of Walmart (of which more later) and comically pixelated on iTunes to protect us from the cover’s erotic allure. I am no expert on hip-hop album covers, but my research confirms a suspicion: that the hip-hop community is not known for shying away from bizarre confrontational imagery of dubious taste. The expert
Bacon's Sacred Studio – Nigel Cooke
The mythology machine of Francis Bacon’s art, an extension of the artist’s scandalising and acerbic reputation when alive, has been going full-tilt now for over half a century. The adjectives routinely appended to his paintings have thus become hollow through overuse; his ‘nightmarish vision’, ‘horrific brutality’, and ‘existential angst’ have come to stand for a time in art now lost, when artists played the role of a conduit between elemental internal emotions and an externalised painted result. The painting itself was the material factura of psychic turmoil, or the ‘slug trail’, as Bacon fondly called his painterly trace.This romantic conception of the artist as a medium positioned between realities was true of Bacon on a number of other levels, beyond the textbook reading of his ‘expressionism’. What goes on inside and what goes on outside, in both bodies and buildings, was an opposition that Bacon strove to con
The Language of Insects – Nigel Cooke
As their Greek name suggests, the order of stick and leaf insects – Phasma – really are apparitions. Positioning themselves in a tangle of foliage, they oscillate between absolute baroque presence and magical invisibility. These ‘walking leaves’ are generally elongate and hemimetabolous (no pupae stage of metamorphosis). Some are broad and flattened. Some forms are apterous (winged) though often only the male actually flies. They have biting and chewing mouthparts and all are phytophagous (leaf eating: bramble, guava, mango and oak). They all possess compound eyes and some of the winged forms possess 2 ocelli (simple eyes). Their antennae are generally filiform (hair-like) ranging from 8 to over 100 segments and their cerci (abdominal appendages) are short. They are often adorned with numerous spines and other protuberances to make the leaf resemblance complete. The illusion has always been seen as a defence strategy, and for good reason; Phasma are not built f
In-Appropriation – Nigel Cooke
At first glance, the worrisome and persecuted face that looks out from Paul Housley’s Self Portrait as Picasso’s Last Self Portrait has little in it to suggest that the work was painted in 2011. First shown earlier this year as part of his solo exhibition at London’s Poppy Sebire, the painted figure gamely sports the Spaniard’s regulation school-of-Paris stripy shirt, above which an oversize head dissembles nervously in a mesh of marks that feel generically ‘Picassoesque’. Yet the febrile impact of these touches suggests something more troubled than the diligent garret practice of late modernity. Instead, somehow, an up-to-date brand of creative anxiety comes across, in a portrait of the artist not in the throes of genius, but strung out with envy and artistic paralysis: strikingly, the face appears fatigued by what could be intuited as a surfeit of painting knowledge. Picasso’s image of himself at ninety years of age in 1972 has been swallowed
Time to Go Van Gogh – Nigel Cooke
LAST APRIL, feeling like it was time for a bit of ‘culture’, I decided to take the kids to see the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. It was the last day of its run. The queue for tickets was four hours long; we never saw the show. Despite urgings from the stoic American ladies ahead of us that the ‘Von Go’ would be worth the wait, we reluctantly knocked it on the head, never to return. Children find art exhibitions challenging enough without queues. But all’s well that ends well; we got to see Van G after all, after a fashion. In June the BBC resurrected the Dutchman for a showdown with space monsters in a Richard Curtis-scripted episode of their time-travel sci-fi series Doctor Who. Played by actor Tony Curran, this Vincent looked enough like Kirk Douglas to recall the artist as depicted in Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film Lust for Life, and thus takes his place not so much in the history of art as in a pop history of contemporary ne