Filtering Apocalypse Through Illusion
The Russian nuclear mishap has heightened the timeliness of Michael Cook’s paintings at the Janet Steinberg Gallery.
The paintings, in oil on canvas, belong to a series he calls “Suite 71645”, a title that suggests both an excerpt from an immense body of work and an office in a vast warren of bureaucracy, such as the Pentagon. Both the style and the content of the paintings give form to the common dread of nuclear war and the folly of provisions for surviving it.
A smoldering irony pervades Cook’s pictures, for their real theme is the impossibility of picturing the aftermath of an unthinkable disaster. He hints at our incapacity to envision the worst by appropriating and modifying what appear to be outdated found images of such things as fallout shelters, anti-radiation gear and billiard ball diagrams of nuclear fission.
Each canvas is under painted in black and the elements of imagery take form as blobs and squiggles of color that blot out the black. This way of painting gives everything in Cook’s pictures a sooty granular look that suggests a bygone graphic convention on the one hand, and on the other a world fizzing with contamination.
A preliminary sketch for the series explains the quizzical one-word titles the paintings bear. In it the row of images is cryptically captioned “The Periodic Expulsion of Evils In A Material Vehicle.” The caption runs beneath the images later done on canvas, and each picture has been assigned the word that happens to fall below it in the pre-liminary study.
The gas masked figures in “The” and “Vehicle” look like veterans of World War 1, another war whose horrors were out of all proportion to its perpetrators capacity to imagine them.
Cook’s pictures would not be easy to live with, for they rebuke the temptation to believe reality can be tamed with images, but they make a memorable gallery show. We see too little contemporary painting in which intelligence seems to pervade every aspect of the work as it does here.
Kenneth Baker is a critic from the San Francisco Bay Area