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The Art of Michael Cook


For some time now Michael Cook has been living and painting in New Mexico, and his paintings since the late eighties reflect both his understanding of the beauty of his surroundings and his recognition of the threat to its sacred ecology or wholeness. In turn, what Cook sees in New Mexico and the West and, in fact, the nation, is a reflection of what he sees in the contemporary world as a whole. In darkly ironical paintings of the late eighties he attempted to come to terms with the glory and horror of his environment, both local and general. In so doing he revealed a world of nuclear waste repositories under the desert wilderness and exposed the “Land of Enchantment” (and, by extension, the “Land of the Brave”) as a secret “lab” for a desolate future.

In this present exhibition, Cook turns his attention to what he calls “mythic American monuments both literal and implied.” Embedded in his new works are questions relating to a national mythos contained in such political and cultural phrases as “Manifest Destiny”, “liberty and justice for all”, “the Golden West”, and “the American Way” and to the monuments that represent them. The body of work as a whole is entitled Instructions. The artist’s concern is how these icons or monuments exist in the American psyche as “acts of memory” and how these acts of memory can “instruct” us as Americans. When we look at the paintings we begin with monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, or the Supreme Court Building clothed in a smoky mist of dream and myth, and our first impression is of the traditional “instruction:” the Statue of Liberty, for instance, stands in our national memory for Liberty and the Supreme Court for Justice. But, through distinctive coloring, symbolic details, and a novel technique of layering, the artist presents us with new, less traditional instructions. In several of the new paintings a line drawing face of a Daddy Warbucks/Mr. Clean figure seems gradually to emerge and to superimpose itself on the monument in question. The figure takes many forms but is perhaps always us--the audience as well as the painter--the participators in the process by which we allow ourselves to be contained by the destructive lies of our culture. Several paintings in the series contain the letters “OK”, which add to the irony already present in the juxtaposition between the ubiquitous face and the monuments. “OK” was, we remember, originally a military term meaning “Orders Known,” used before executing a command.

When we look at the painting of Mount Rushmore, for instance, (painted ironically in the commercially labeled hue of "Indian Red") and gradually become aware of the sinister Mr. Clean taking command of it, are we echoing the “OK” we see there? Are we celebrating the myth of the four presidents (clearly decomposing when we look at the details of their faces), or are we finally recognizing the carving on the mountain as a desecration of the sacred Black Hills, as graffiti on land stolen from the Indian people in the name of Manifest Destiny?

Related questions arise from the painting of the Statue of Liberty and our gradual realization of the presence in it of a secondary line painting of “Miss Liberty” in restraints, or from the painting of the Supreme Court Building with its obscenely-distorted frieze and its larger than life line figure plagued by a pain in the neck.


A less obvious instruction is contained in the particularly elegant painting of an old reconstructed southern mansion revealed behind a mist of green with little spots some viewers might see romantically as fireflies and some as bruises on a southern mythology which veils undermining social and historical realities.


In one of the most complex of the new paintings we view Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom through a purple/violet--the color of royalty--layer of misty memory. As an icon of American nostalgia it is undermined and its essential tackiness revealed by a series of cadmium yellow/orange teeth that float out from and over the castle like dancing sugar-plum fairies, bearing ironical “happy faces” reminding us of decay and the dentist’s eternal words: “It’s not going to hurt” (read: denial). Of course, we know it always does hurt. A still closer look at the painting shows us decay expressed in paint that seems, like the faces on Cook’s Mount Rushmore, to be decomposing.


Cook’s art, then, is at once abstract, realistic, and mysterious--even mystical. Like the bubble chamber images used in his earlier work of the seventies and eighties, these new paintings present a vision of a seemingly abstract world, which we gradually perceive to be reality itself, a reality which changes our understanding of our nature and our being. The paintings suggest the generally unseen essence of our experience--our physical, psychological, and political experience. They force us as Americans, for instance, to meditate on the real and sometimes terrifying trails left by the interaction between our myths and our deeds--in our wars, in our environment, in our history, in our everyday lives.

Michael Cook never thinks of his paintings as a substitute for reality, though; we can always appreciate his art for its energy and power as painting. We are drawn into the ideas by the painting, not into the painting by the ideas. The flatter and drier tone of the surface and texture of the new works reflect, for instance, not only the desert environment of New Mexico and the dwindling of its resources, but the drying up of a whole culture’s values. As Cook’s political point of view has developed, so have the formal and textural qualities of his paintings. Throughout his career, he has made use of the materials of his art and the places in which his paintings were shown in such a way as to express his sense of the artwork as “cultural residue” or “artifact of experience.”


In his paintings of the late 1970s, for example, Cook turned to the bubble chamber image and device as not only his central metaphor but as itself the actual subject of a series of paintings. To the majority of his viewers these paintings of lines and curves and dots and spirals were as abstract as the intricate compositions of Mondrian or the conceptual wall drawings of Sol Lewitt.


The viewers were right only in the sense that the abstract painter attempts to achieve a representation of the form and energy behind the surface of experience. To Cook--and certainly to the nuclear physicist who might have seen the paintings--however, these paintings were purely realistic “quotes” or appropriations from bubble chamber photographs, and, therefore, purely “representational” works. But, of course, the paintings were themselves metaphors. Like the bubble chambers, they were containers of energy, windows to the mystery of existence. The galleries in which they hung were also containers of energy, aesthetic variants on the metaphor of bubble chambers in which the painter’s energy had to collide with the energy of his audience during a “contained” segment of time. In one of his early shows Cook found expression for this interaction between the painter and his audience, by allowing graphite that had fallen from wall drawings to be tracked across the gallery floor, creating the basis for reconfigurations that Janet Kutner in Art News called “primordial and elegant” works of art and that Cook called “Remains”--remains like the elegant photographs of bubble chamber spiral trails that illuminate the relationship between proton and electron.


A significant theme in Cook’s painting has been alchemy, not so much in the sense of literally making lead into gold as in the psychological and metaphysical sense of the process by which wholeness can develop out of brokenness. Into the bubble chamber images of his paintings in the early eighties, the painter interjected alchemical symbols, making the bubble designs less literal and more metaphorical. So the spiral becomes a mandala and the old lines, through the technique of bringing them up through levels of paint, seem to glow mystically on the muted surfaces of the works.

In a 1983 exhibit at the Grayson Gallery in Chicago Cook extended the use of his alchemical images by making them more literally figurative even as they took on a more abstract symbolic burden. In one painting the alchemical sign for "work completed" is a bright red form on a black background set off by a mysterious white city emitting light on the horizon. What Cook is doing here is conflating alchemy and his own developing social vision.

This conflation becomes increasingly clear in the mid eighties when the Cold War was at its height. The paintings of this period become increasingly political and ironical. In one painting entitled “Ashes,” for example, a mandalic “Happy Face,” Cook’s Earth symbol, is overshadowed by a looming bomb.


The apocalyptic theme in Cook’s paintings comes fully into its own in a 1986 San Francisco show at the Janet Steinberg Gallery called “Suite 71645.” July 16th is Cook’s birthday and the date of the moon walk launching. July 16, 1945 was also the date on which, in the New Mexican desert, a plutonium atom bomb was tested; both the artist’s life and American achievements are overshadowed by the reality of the nuclear shadow. The mystical alchemical spirals of potential wholeness in the bubble chamber photographs and Cook’s early paintings give way here, as they did in our cold war mentality, to the smoky mushroom cloud of the nuclear holocaust.


Using a Soviet pamphlet of “nuclear survival” for his core images and Sir James Frazer’s “The Periodic Expulsion of Evil in a Material Vehicle” as a theme, in the San Francisco series of paintings, Cook becomes still more figurative in his approach and is able to bring an element of dry humor to depictions of male and female figures locked into the boxes which are their survival suits, the shelters in which they sit, and the paintings in which they and their “shelters” are contained. The container metaphor, and the related question of the relationship between the painting surface, the wall of display, the gallery as container and the viewer, always important elements in Cook’s vision, are accentuated by a new painting support by which the paintings are extended like free-floating surfaces away from the gallery walls to heighten the tension between painted surface and implied illusion. Cook has continued to use this hanging device. It is particularly effective, for example in Instructions/Niagra in the current exhibition.


Some of Michael Cook’s most beautiful paintings are those of the 1989-90 period which appear to be depictions of various splendid fruits and vegetables but which, upon closer examination, become grotesque commentaries on such “advanced” techniques as the irradiation of food to prevent decay. These are paintings that force us to confront hard facts about our values and our priorities. The food depicted is all blighted in spite of its apparent beauty. The old bubble chamber elegance (there are still occasional bubble chamber images in these paintings) has once again been overwhelmed, this time by the atom in the service of “progress.” In one painting the hand of God in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel becomes the examining hand of our modern “god” of medical science in search of cancer in a proctological exam.


In the current exhibition, Michael Cook builds on the metaphors and concerns that have marked his earlier work. The bubble chamber, though no longer literally present, still serves as a valid metaphor. The alchemical symbols are also mostly gone, but the alchemical quest for wholeness in the face of brokeness is still operative; and as in the irradiation paintings we are still confronted with the “facts” of our polluted existence and with our denial of it. The latest series of paintings, in fact, progresses logically from the earlier stages of Cook’s art. As mysterious, myth-filled images of unexpected or often denied reality, all of his paintings--early and late--take us to the threshold of the suspension of disbelief just long enough to startle us into a more realistic understanding of our condition in the here and now.

David Leeming 1996

A Note on David Leeming:


David Leeming's most recent work is a book on the expatriate painter Beauford Delaney. His previous works include the biography of James Baldwin as well as "The World of Myth" written with Jake Paige.

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