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October 9, 1997
My name is Michael Cook and I am sending this message in the hope of enlisting your participation in a project…a series of paintings (portraits) of other Michael Cook’s located in the domain of cyberspace called .edu, .com, and .net. There are many issues related to a body of work like this, for example, the notion of identity and cloning…I am asking if it would be possible for you to send me a photograph of yourself? A frontal head shot from the shoulders up. Please send photo’s or digital files to…

With this message originally sent to forty-six Michael Cooks found through web directories, Michael Cook began the project that led to the installation Veneer. The installation unites a series of paintings in which Cook explores the paradigm of individualality in an increasingly linked global communications network and the personal, psychic landscape of the video First Man. The hearth, a universal sign of human habitation, anchors the installation and contains the new focal point of human attention, the video monitor. In this fundamentally human environment, Veneer presents the paradoxical nature of identity in our increasingly fragmented, yet never so connected, technological universe. Does the electronic overlay of web based communications shroud identity, or rather, does it make the thin layer that masks our essential human connection more apparent?

The series of paintings Michael Cook @..., addresses the question of how we define ourselves in a world where hundreds, if not thousands, of people share the same name in the disembodied realm of cyberspace. Names and faces as they move through the virtual world seem to come untied from their owners. In a sense, the electronic medium makes it apparent that the difficult process of defining differences between self and other is a veneer that covers an essential unity. And yet, each of us has a personal and private history, a dreamscape where we ride waves, or horses, or subways, where parents recorded us in home movies, and where we remember the signal events of our childhood. Is this what makes us unique? The video, First Man answers that question with an interlocking sequence of dream, personal and cultural histories. We are who we are because of what we saw and did, how we experienced the dominant events of our time, and what we see when we close our eyes in our dreams. Yet imbedded in the stream of personal images and memories are universals, a shared history of mans first venture into space, a reference to life’s ascent from the waters of the ocean.

Issues of unity and distinction similarly inform the installation on a formal level. Veneer juxtaposes the hierarchy of media, video associated with popular entertainment and painting firmly located in the realm of high art. The placement of the painting over the fireplace mantel containing the flat screen monitor makes explicit the formal connections in the size and shape of the canvas and the framed screen of the video monitor. Color, surface and structure unite rather that separate these disparate forms.

Cook’s concern with the possibilities of connection in a fragmented, technological society flows organically from earlier work. In the series of paintings, INSTRUCTIONS, which occupied him from 1991 to 1996, Cook focused on what he called “mythic American monuments both literal and implied.” Monuments which connect and instruct us in a national mythos. Suite 71645 made explicit the interconnectedness of personal history (Cook’s birthday is July 16) national achievement (the Apollo first moon walk mission launched on July 16) and the ominous mushroom that appeared over the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. As in First Man, national myth and personal history are interwoven. Veneer is also intimately connected to his continuing exploration of the arbitrary distinctions that have been used to demarcate art and science, art and technology. Are the sixteenth century anatomical prints by Vesalius, art or science? Are the nineteenth century expeditionary photographs topographic record or evidence of an artist’s visual sensibility? Or to pose the question in 1999 terms, is entering an artist’s web site an artistic or technological experience? Michael Cook’s installation suggests that the much vexed question as to whether art and science are incommensurate realms of knowledge is misplaced. Veneer suggests more interesting questions: What are the conditions under which objects become visible in culture? What is the personal and human significance of those visual manifestations? These are questions Cook has pursued in his paintings since the bubble chamber paintings of the late 1970’s.

As redolent of ideas as the paintings and video that comprise Veneer are, they are not dry texts for deciphering conundrums of identity and difference. The questions Michael Cook poses engage first through the aesthetic presence of the objects. The paintings are intense physical experiences of color and texture. Carbon, simulating the pixilated translation of digital images, punctuates the painted surface and in turn is interrupted by thick extrusions of color. The paintings are iconic and suggestive, but they are first very beautiful. The mantelpiece is exquisitely carved and finished in a thin wash of paint, a formal translation of the very essence of the word “veneer.” In his statement, Michael Cook confesses to an ongoing fascination with the possibilities of paintings to communicate a reality beyond representational illusion and the sensual qualities of the painted surface. Veneer presents ideas of difference and authenticity fluidly in paint and video

Kathleen Stewart Howe

Sarah Rempel and Herbert S. Rempel '23 Director of Museum of Art

Professor of Art, Pomona College

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