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Mythical American Landscape Laid Bare

Ellen Berkovitch


Michael Cook's paintings rend the American fairy tale into a shop of horrors. Cook's work questions the meaning of landscape in the American way. Landscape is symbol, to be sure and is codified deeply into the American myth as part of rulership, parcel of the facade of democracy.


The first painting you come to, titled "Instructions:Hook," pictures a sinister emcee pulling back a yellow curtain to reveal the Hollywood sign. (Kitsch landscape icons like the Arch in St. Louis, Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls populate the artist's work.) The emcee's dour silhouette makes a terrain with the curtain edge.


In "Instructions:Magic Kingdom," the majestic towers of Disneyland glimmer purple as huge, smiley teeth bob in the foreground. Disneyland's presented as an iconic tooth fairy to the rampant wishes afloat in the soup of American packaged desire.


The cinematic quality of Cook's canvasses operates both through content and the layering of imagery. The paintings begin with a powerfully colored landscape upon which is imposed the outline of a figure: smiley-face molars, Mr. Clean, a female Daffy Duck, a man swimming. That the figure is always outlined rather than solid may refer to the sketchy profile of the American individual against the fully materialized American myth.

If one returns to Renaissance paintings, we see there that the undifferentiated crowd began to disperse in favor of individual humans expressing real emotion, interacting with each other: the back of a mourner, in Giotto, for example, made us experience empathy, invited us into the painting.


Consider, by contrast, that the window of Cook's canvas opens onto a kind of mirror from which a clone or caricature stares back at us. (Remember the 1970's Gillette commercial of a man opening his medicine cabinet to find a lathered stranger on the other side?) We are subsumed into the commercial symbol, forced to contemplate it as the "sponsor" or the promoter of the landscape we are instructed is our "destiny."

Hunger and desire, America's signature psychic conditions, are manifest. That symbol of easy satiety, McDonald's golden arches, gratifies with the knowledge that just at the edge of the experience, or the "event" of vast America, lies the fast food, hunger's quick fix. Cook's paintings form event horizons. The restless psychology of the onlooker, the armchair pilgrim, bounces against real experience with a harsh rebound.

Cooks background of landscape is neither continuous nor infinite; rather, it's impervious as a surface that idealizes the sacred images. The real is completely confounded. But the ideal is, too. The real has met up ineluctably with the codification of the ideal that kitsch landscape symbols manifest.


The superficiality is formally carried out by a relentless frontalism. With the powerfully colored landscape as the undertext, Cook gives us the transparent symbol on top (the outlined figure), then overbrushes the whole thing. Our gaze has to reach the picture by penetrating these collisions.


The human in Cook's work is often abject. In "Instructions:Liberty," a man shackled to gurney overlays the Statue of Liberty. In "Instructions:Supreme Court," Mr. Clean stands facing the eminent building. With two fingers, he's baring a spot on his neck. In "Instructions:Monument Valley" the vast floor jutting with buttes and mesas is seen at night through a deep cerulean blue, jazzed with tiny red specks that could be fireflies or sparklers - something you buy on the way into the park, five for a buck. The Arch is here, too - and the Empire State Building, and George Washington's profile. Here you are at night in Monument Valley; you made it. There's George the big daddy/founding father - and there's the Arch, representing both the great trajectory west and the urge for a hamburger. Cook's frustration with American instant gratification, and the collective despoilment it has created, is palpable. The politics, the anger of his paintings, tick.


His, after all, is a big story of America, a story called "Instructions," which could be a synonym for obedience. It's a heroic saga with two faces. On the street side is the facade of a southern plantation ("Instructions:Orton") all glowy and smudgy behind a romantic haze. Occupying the back side of the dame installation wall is the fecund "Garden," except here the plants are rows upon rows of oozing yellow barrels abandoned in a toxic waste dump.


The paintings series titled "Instructions" is paired with reiterations on the painting surfaces of the word, "OK." Cook punctuates OK with a semi-colon, a question mark, an ellipsis. OK is rhetoric in the American tradition, yet the mundane complicity of OK dismembers real debate, masks the incivility of what we've already agreed to. OK is plain American apple pie, no matter how deviant from moral, or sacred.

Cook's is angry , powerful work. The transparent Hollywood curtain shows an awful lot of smog rising in the hills - an American fable begrimed by complicity.


Ellen Berkovitch is a writer and art critic who resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico

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