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Painting as Endgame:
Nigel Cooke's Pathology of the Downfall

Dressed as a Flemish master or as a contemporary of Dante's, the British painter Nigel Cooke leads the viewer into an apocalyptic inferno that spreads out over the picture's surface in an array of microscopically tiny details. The artist, whose work is represented by the Deutsche Bank Collection, is currently presenting his first one-man museum show at the Tate Britain. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Cooke's subversive landscape paintings.

Nigel Cooke:Sing the Pumpkin Song, 2003
Courtesy Modern Art London, © Nigel Cooke

Yesterday's civilizational refuse provides a fertile ground for future worlds. Nigel Cooke's cruelly beautiful landscape paintings resemble snapshots of some ultimate survival show in which the candidates have lost their way for good; this is a place nobody's going to be able to pull them out of any more. The scenery looks like a bizarre version of Beckett's Endgame: human heads are jutting up out of the ground, stuck in the scattered rubbish of cultural and natural history. Each one is a prototype of a young, hip media culture, and somehow looks like a star. Instead of populating the streets of Brixton, Williamsburg, or Kreuzberg, though, they're popping up out of the ground like bizarre heads of cabbage in paintings called Don't Mess with my Message (2002) - chopped clean off, bodiless, or proliferating with eyes and mouths wide open and facial muscles frozen in expressions conveying little more than an endurance of the inevitable.

Nigel Cooke: Don't mess with my message (detail), 2002
Courtesy Modern Art London, © Nigel Cooke

At first glance, Cooke's visual dramas come across as natural views of magnificent breadth and archaic strength. Fluorescent lightning strikes down from tremendous nighttime skies, as in Universe as Message Vista (2002), or, by daylight, ethereal rainbows appear above the thin strip of an Earth lying prone below, a wasteland recalling the beginning of the Old Testament story of creation: "the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters."

Nigel Cooke: Black Grass, 2002 Courtesy Modern Art London, © Nigel Cooke

Writing about Nigel Cooke's exhibition in the London gallery Modern Art in 2002, a reviewer in artforum quipped that the devil is in the detail. Indeed, one has to take a closer look at the paintings' filigree structure to see that the artist, with the painstaking care of a surgeon, has implanted viruses into his work bearing ineluctable cultural and biological decay. Miniature scenes crystallize on the canvas as though enlarged through a magnifying glass. Dressed as a Flemish master or as a contemporary of Dante's, Cooke leads the viewer into the depths of an apocalyptic inferno that spreads out over the picture's surface in an array of microscopically tiny details.

Nigel Cooke: Sunset with Burnt Tree's, 2001, Deutsche Bank Collection
Courtesy Modern Art London, © Nigel Cooke

In Cooke's work, the Earth is a civilizational burial ground, the scene of a by-gone disaster littered with the ruins of an imaginary fallout. Civilization and ecology have been hit equally hard: in Scandalous Magic Par Excellence (2001), a rocker's severed head and the cadaver of a leopard are illuminated by the white glare of a lightning bolt set against a background of splintering wood, rubble, and scraps of string and paper. The gloomy Woodland Scream (2002) trembles with a fluorescent ray of energy striking the last remaining tree stump. Yet despite all this, the painting has something idyllic about it. In the midst of an apocalyptic landscape, a rabbit is peacefully cleaning itself among blades of tender young grass shooting up out of the contaminated ground.

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