Michael Cook: Venetian by Diane Armitage, David Richard Contemporary, Santa Fe, THE Magazine, October 2011
I have to admit that part of my original take on Michael Cook’s recent exhibition Venetian was wrong in this sense: I thought the title of Cook’s show referred to Venice, Italy, and that city’s Venetian waters with their refractory, illusive surfaces. The water is never just water there, but a plateau of mirrors. I initially saw Cook’s new body of work as yet another prism with which to view the slippery nature of images, the endlessly changing, liquid relationship between the viewer and the viewed. And I may not be so far off, even if the artist’s paintings do not refer to the properties of Venetian waters per se so much as the blinkered views from behind Venetian blinds. Underneath the surface of Cook’s paintings is the push and pull of looking out and looking in. In his work, the blinds constitute a scrim, an ocular veil that admits or blocks information about the world outside—the realm of facts, dead ends, dreadful realities, dazzling vistas, and manifold delights.
On the surface of these images are Cook’s meticulous renderings of a visual strategy—Venetian blinds turned on their axis from horizontal to vertical slats; the vertical lines become a grid and the vehicle for color and manipulations of surface-to depth relationships. Embedded underneath the linear forms are a series of changing landscapes that sometimes refer to actual ones beyond an implied window or to clouds, abstract forms, even a bombing range, or to erotic configurations of male and female symbols—products of the playful mind of the artist. There may or may not be a single key to unlocking this body of work as the paintings slip in and out of their own surface readings like a dolphin skillfully maneuvering through the waves. One could view the surface, with its linear notations, as the artist’s conscious mind, and below the cohesiveness of the linear are fleeting hints of Cook’s subconscious with its pool of desires, its fears, its innocence, its dark side, its need to hide and to seek.
There is a strong sense of visual discipline inherent in this work—an elegantly imposed order over the free-ranging mind with all its repertoire of refractions and reflections. However, Cook’s highly structured vertical grid doesn’t at all seem like an imposition on the cravings of his Id, a word that often appears in the titles of the paintings: as in Venetian Id (Yellow Greens) with its bands of color that seem to morph from one color to the next; inflections of red, orange, and violet sections add an almost undulating quality to the strictness of the lines. But what is going on underneath the grid? There are schematic drawings and diagrams—a happy face in the upper right-hand corner, a frowning one at the lower left, and is that a crisscrossing of phalluses in the middle? It’s as if, under the surface, a physicist of the erotic was at the drawing board illustrating a mind at play in the fields of free association.
Cook’s paintings are powerful in the intensity of their color relationships, yet the work runs the danger of being over-wrought for the sake of creating a visual style. However, just when you think he’s gone too far with his idea, you quickly succumb to the undertow of the paintings’ sensual depths with their rebus-like information. What seems hard, intensely linear, and over-determined is just a mask for the indeterminate nature of clouds or smoke, or dream-like sinuous shapes whose identities are vague. In such works as Venetian (Orange Mesoscale), the artist offers the idea of a mask that both frames an idea and is a threshold into the artist’s vision of the fragility of the land, or the odd schematics of what looks like a launch pad as in Venetian (Violet Continent). But one thing is certain—although Cook’s vistas of interior and exterior worlds are visually limited by the implied frame of a window, the paintings don’t really have a beginning or an end; though cropped, these views of real and imaginary terrain could go on to infinity.
All contemporary painting is ultimately self-reflexive. The act of painting is an investigation into the process of what it means to be an artist with an evolving lineage, and it is also an investigation into the nature of the self in relation to the world. The artistic process attempts to anchor the individual in the ebb and flow of life and provide a strategy for survival, for arriving at the slippery depths of a momentary certainty—but one that just as quickly shifts toward uncertainty as information flows over everyone’s highly personal and unlevel playing field. Cook’s painting has always possessed brains and beauty, but it doesn’t rest in the realm of facile devices. His work represents hard won pictorial truths on which the artist continues to build his unique plateau of mirrors.