Craig Garrett: Painters, unfairly or not, are always expected to be able to comment on their place in the history of their medium. What episodes in the history of painting have shaped your artistic development? Your attention to detail, for instance, is often labeled 'Flemish.'
Nigel Cooke: I'm interested in the history of painting as a kind of dictionary of ideals that I'm trying to ransack as completely as possible. I want all the characteristics of painting, from the retarded to the sophisticated, to be simultaneously represented, as though the whole past lives of the medium were flashing before its eyes. So it becomes kind of ahistorical. It's a kind of parody of the doomed 'last paintings' that some artists tried to engineer in the 20th century -- a death of painting played out as one big, bloated painting project.
The Flemish thing is a part of this plurality -- it's about giving an intense visual identity to every inch of the image. In my case, this isn't just about the close rendering of objects (which of course is important), but the use of a range of painting sensibilities alongside those objects.
CG: Another word that gets used a lot in connection with your work is 'entropy.' This force of decay is a tricky thing, as it works on not just a physical but also a societal level. No matter how well a city may be planned, it contains neglected zones beyond the rule of authority. Stoner dystopias, zones where society's disenfranchised -- adolescents, drug addicts, the homeless -- break its rules while, all around, its physical structures are broken down by nature. Have you had a lot of first-hand contact with these sites? Are your artworks based on personal memories? Or are these places you've visited only in the world of your paintings?
NC: I'm often told that my paintings look like certain places in the world, some that I've visited, others that I haven't. Mexico City, Sri Lanka, Central Illinois, Iceland, and Rome have all been mentioned recently. It's because in all these places there are areas where human constructs and natural processes have collapsed into each other through neglect or other kinds of change. Process connects them, rather than the specific details that the process contains. And the process of entropy is about the erosion of differences. So the entropy in the pictures is a way of universalizing the scene of the image without recourse to any topographical specificity. It shows the place as a process. In a way, this is analogous to the medium of painting; it's a generalization, in which there are specific objects.
That this kind of virulent urban nature is connected with the site of marginal social action gives it a kind of instant content, but the pictures try to work both with and against this. I'm interested in the way the expected meanings of images can be changed or amplified by their articulation, or tone of voice.
CG: You have a facility for observing the minute flaws that signal authenticity. It makes me think of the difference between the most recent Star Wars films, in which everything is too cold and digital to be convincing, and the original, in which every robot was dented and every spaceship had rust around the edges. One of the most persuasive elements in your paintings is the precise rendering of subliminal details -- litter, broken stones, cracked plaster, water stains.
NC: I remember the beaten-up, exhausted quality of the first Star Wars film very well. The details of wretchedness have a kind of pathos and idiocy that always shows you who the good guys are. It's the entropy thing again -- there's a fight to keep the powers of dissolution, or evil, at bay. When the truth of nature leaks into the immaculate spaces of science fiction, it's an immediate sign of struggle against a higher threat. Nature and its terminal effects gets bound up with a symbolic evil, preying only on the honest mortals toiling amongst it. There is a psychic weight then, yes -- something like the irreversibility of time captured in the image of effluvia leaking suspiciously from a crack in a wall. But as a consequence, it's also a sign of instability or change. In terms of painting, these images may have a similar effect. The duality of decay and disrepair is meant to make the thing look ready with possibilities without too much positivity or salvation. But as well as this, it also returns paint to what it really is, that is, colored mud. To use it to depict exactly that seems like a nice tautology.
CG: I heard you had some trouble last year at a group exhibition in Tel Aviv. Actually, it was one of your paintings that ran into trouble.
NC: It got nicked. Mixed feelings of flattery and confusion. It was very small, so they must have crammed it into their coat pocket.
CG: Your paintings are notoriously hard to get a hold of, with long waiting lists for collectors. On average, how many paintings do you produce each year?
NC: I guess I produce around six large pieces a year, with several smaller ones depending on the difficulties presented by the bigger ones. It's the opposite of doing small studies for big paintings. The large paintings tend to establish overall themes that the smaller ones extend and resolve. I work on a few at a time, so have started keeping records of when they start and end. It can be hard to keep track of otherwise.
CG: Recent months have been very busy for you. First you had a solo exhibition at Tate Britain in March. In April your show opened at Andrea Rosen in New York. And you're expecting a baby. Has this been a happy period, or has all the stress been difficult?
NC: I enjoy a certain level of stress because it keeps you critical of your own decisions. It's been one of the most productive and surprising phases of my work so far, creating a very close relationship between working and showing that is both exposed and constructive. And the baby is a great reward at the end of it.
by Craig Garrett
[originally published in Flash Art no. 236 (May/June 2004)]