The dark heart of Nigel Cooke’s Bathers

Discover how this lush, lewd painting by the UK artist examines the ultimate mystery that lies at the centre of his art
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Bathers (2011) by Nigel Cooke. As reproduced in our new Contemporary Artist Series book devoted to the painter.
Bathers (2011) by Nigel Cooke. As reproduced in our new Contemporary Artist Series book devoted to the painter.

How would you make a painting? Here’s how Nigel Cooke does it. “I’ll pin ten, twenty pieces of paper on the wall, each with a small, very basic sketch at the top,” he explains in our new Contemporary Artist Series book, “and start to write below these sketches the components that I see ftting into the scene. At this point, the strongest ones are very easy to spot, so I let the weaker ones sit for a bit to build up a head of steam, and I’ll pursue say four to six of the best ones."

These sketches might be recurrent memories or preoccupations, things the artist wants to “hold on to or commemorate in some private way.” Yet he doesn’t simply reproduce these images on the canvas. Few contemporary painters are as preoccupied with the fundamentals of their art as Nigel Cooke. His pictures feel like they are about the very act of painting, in which you sense the artist constantly interrogating his own processes.

 

Nigel Cooke in his studio, Canterbury, UK, 2015
Nigel Cooke in his studio, Canterbury, UK, 2015
 

In the opening chapter of our new book the British psychoanalyst and author Darian Leader asks Cooke a simple question, “What is a painting?” This is almost certainly a question Cooke asks himself every day, every hour of his working life. He answers honestly and at length, in what feels like a fascinatingly tortuous attempt to demystify the nature of his work, only to arrive, time and again at the ultimate mystery of what art tries to represent and do; a “certain absence within painting”. As he tantalisingly puts it, “There’s a void at the heart of it in which there are just more questions: what’s the difference between painting and thinking, or painting and looking, or painting and living?”

 

Detail from Bathers (2011) by Nigel Cooke
Detail from Bathers (2011) by Nigel Cooke

This unending quest to venture towards a sort of heart of darkness makes for canvasses such as Bathers from 2011. Lush and verdant with trees, a recurring motif in his work as he admits (“the tree as a sort of nexus behind a living, thinking character”), at first glance it looks like an imaginative, figurative tableau featuring semi-submerged nudes and an elderly man at an easel. However, the great swathes of green that cross the canvas feel like deliberate references to the very act of applying brushwork. Beyond lies a certain blackness, the “absence” towards which Cooke is striving. Bathers exists in a zone somewhere between abstraction and representation. The eerie presence of a set of dentures, another recurring motif in Cooke’s work, suggest an extreme state of subjectivity; the artist right inside his own head.

For greater insight into Cooke order a copy of our new book, which also features contributions from the British writer and curator Tony Godfrey, the French novelist Marie Darrieussecq, and the US poet and novelist Paul Auster, as well as essays by the artist himself. It really is the most thorough and revealing book on Cooke and his work to date.


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