|John Rattigan, author of The Visionary Mould, is an artist and taught art for over thirty years, and has a special interest in Neo-Romantic art. His own artwork can be seen on his website www.johnrattigan.co.uk
|Michael Cook:The Visionary Mould
An essay by John Rattigan
I first came into contact with Michael Cook's art at the Melbourne Arts Festival in 2009. Returning to my car a little jaded having visited most of the artists exhibiting there, I decided to have a look at the local church, thinking that it wasn't a festival venue. I say jaded because I had begun to despair at a lot of the work I'd seen. As with similar events around the UK there can often be a good deal of unimaginative work on show, a fair amount of inauthentic art or at worst pure kitsch.
Within the church, either resting in window spaces or on easels around the altar were Cook's Twelve Mysteries series based on his interpretations of nameless, marginal and fleeting characters from the four gospels. Here at last, just when my spirits were flagging was the real thing - serious art that looked formally and conceptually rigorous. Clearly here was someone who was seeking authenticity but who was well versed in the history of art, either consciously or intuitively using elements from the past to help shape his personal vision.
I could spot connections to aspects of Cubism but married to storytelling. Not the art of first generation Cubism; Picasso or Braque's analytical period, but the lesser known and now overlooked second generation Cubism of Lyonel Feininger or Jacques Villon.
Cook's drawings were characterised by an extreme evenness of touch with finely graduated tonal areas that drew your eyes across each picture surface, with their beautiful transparent and interconnecting arcs. The paintings possessed an equally impressive desire to create beautiful surface textures as well as forms and figures that had substantial mass and volume.
Because of these formal qualities I found myself drawn into the work, physically coming closer to inspect certain nuances and effects. Noticing for example that the paintings were as much drawn as they were painted, with scumbled layers of colours laid on (via the technique known as oil stick) over flat base colours. The results shimmer and glow with a kind of internal light, paradoxically transparent and opaque.
The other aspect that drew me to inspect works such as Weary Traveller was the imagery - we see a striking male figure who leans against a stylized tree trunk, while nearby a bird and a fox are subtly hidden within the almost labyrinthine landscape of lush foliage.
Although illustrating a biblical text - "birds have their nests and the fox has a hole but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Luke 9 v 58) - the final result is highly elusive and enigmatic. Here is a drawing that is able to encompass Cubism at one end and strains of English Romanticism at the other. This may seem a strange marriage but it is a remarkably potent mix of William Blake and Picasso, Samuel Palmer crossed with John Craxton. This Romanticism/ Modernism fusion is used to create a world that is suffused with a private as well as public symbolism.
Palmer of course recognised in Blake's art the quest for a spiritual, transcendental and visionary form of art; to turn mundane reality into higher beauty - "there is in all his work such a mystic dreamy glimmer as penetrate and kindles the inner most soul".
Weary Traveller certainly uses the pictorial language and imagery of the pastoral and the arcadian established by Blake and his acolytes Palmer and Calvert. We can see it in the density and lushness of all those leaves, the fecundity of the rolling bulbous hills and the long winding road. Similarly, the interconnectivity between man and nature is expressed in the dominant tree trunk in the foreground and the forlorn exhausted figure that leans up against it. This figure in turn embodies the time honoured romantic wandering poet, musician or traveller. I particularly like the way his strongly modelled, three dimensional and muscular forearms contrasts with the tree trunk, which is more two dimensional and decorative. Equally the figures Picasso-like oversized eye and his chunky neo-classical frame contrasts with his meticulously combed hair. As if a figure from Picasso's Vollard Suite meets up with Fred Astaire!
The romantic/pastoral school in British art has never completely disappeared of course. It may well have been usurped and its voice drowned out by successive isms and art movements; from Surrealism to Pop, Abstraction to Conceptualism, but it has a distinct lineage of its own.
During the 1940's Palmer's imagery was taken up by Graham Sutherland, initially as pastiche/homage but eventually developed into a personal vision of thorny, writhing, natural forms and man/animal/nature collisions. John Craxton took the Blakeian spirit and mixed it with the metamorphic elements he came across in Paul Nash, who in turn had cross-fertilized a very British taste for pastoral landscape with infusions from Surrealism. Similarly Ceri Richards mixed Surrealism with an intimate knowledge of Welsh flora and fauna to produce paintings based around cycles within nature and life/death dichotomies, full of leafy bodies, tendrils, animated plants and convulsive sky/sea/mountain mutations.
Some of Cook's recent output explores similar territory. His series entitled Earth Air Fire Water, a set of large scale paintings from 2010 mixes semi-abstract symbolic representations of the four evangelists with landscape/seascape imagery.
More painterly and loosely handled than previous work this elements series has a lot in common with the work of the late Norman Adams, another artist who managed to finely balance abstract beauty and symbolic imagery. Cook's series has something in common with the Stations of the Cross paintings Adams produced for St Marys Church in Manchester. Both are prepared to use sweeping arabesques of colour, distorted perspectives and heightened colour relationships to explore deeply felt emotions about the position of man within nature. Like Adams and the aforementioned Neo-Romantics, Cook is fully aware of the repository of forms and painterly effects to be found in art history and sees no reason to turn his back on such a treasure trove. But equally, you sense that there are some fundamental motivations and impulses at work in his art regardless of such connections.
If I seem to be making too strong a case for interpreting Cook's art in mainly formal, aesthetic terms, this is only my way into his art. He clearly has wider concerns and is certainly not interested in any arts for arts sake ethos. He would probably agree with the painter Cecil Collins, another British painter from the visionary mould who said of his own work, "The term pure painting, pure art, seem to me to be meaningless... a picture lives on many different levels at once and one level can only be understood in the light of others. In my experience painting is a metaphysical activity. All my pictures are based on a theme and the theme is the cause of all the form and colour harmonies and no colour and line exists for its own sake. The subject is the context of forms and colour".