One of the big themes of Nigel Cooke’s massive, multi-layered paintings is journeys, so there’s something apt about the way he’s come full circle with his latest show, Painter’s Beach Club, on at Jerwood Gallery in Hastings till March 24th.
“I graduated in 1994 with a friend of mine, and another friend had a shop space he said we could use, on the sea front in Hastings, and we put on an exhibition that nobody saw. I hadn’t been back since.”
Twenty-five years on, Nigel’s on the phone from his studio in Kent, which his architect-wife purpose-designed for him, enabling him to work on up to eight canvases – each of which is over two by two metres – at a time. “There’s a gallery at the front, where I can look at the work away from all the clutter,” he tells me. “You’d like to think that the perfect space would lead to you getting things together on every level, that life would become more cerebral, ethereal, clean…” he continues. “But life’s still messy, and you’re still you. It’s like when you go on holiday, the surroundings might change but you’re still the same person.”
Perhaps such ‘messiness’ is necessary for his art to work. Every frame he paints, he says, is a journey into the unknown. “When you start to paint, you’re looking into the future, trying to reach a distant point, and you don’t know what that is until you get there. In every painting there needs to be tension, discordance, conflict.
The deliverance has to be double-handed. There must be an element of antagonism. Otherwise a painting is just an illustration.”The paintings all have a subject, of course, but that is only a starting point. “A red herring, just an excuse to get started. The true subject of the painting is the painting itself. If you look at Velazquez or Rubens you can see that the application transcends the image and becomes the reality.” He listens to audio books, while he’s working (currently Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections) “more for the rhythm of the sentences than the meaning of the words.” He loves writing, and wishes that it was as easy to “harvest disparate information” in the same way on the canvas, as you can on the page. “Rothko and Rembrandt are two very distinct things which can’t work together visually. I’m trying to create a place where they can.”
He’s also influenced by cinema – he cites Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster as a favourite, for the way the “deliberately dreadful deadpan dialogue” consciously and “upsettingly” jars with the cinematic beauty of the images. But most of all, of course, he’s influenced by other painters. Velazquez comes up a few times. “If you put Bacon, Picasso, Velazquez and Clifford Still into a blender”, he tells me, at the end of our conversation, “you’d get one of mine coming out of the other end.”
Image (top): Indian Summer, 2015, © Nigel Cooke, Courtesy Pace Gallery
Image (bottom): Nigel Cooke in his studio © Lens & Pixel
Painter’s Beach Club runs alongside Telescope, featuring twenty artists Nigel has encountered through Instagram, Jerwood Gallery, till March 24th