The Art of Michael Cook
In this present exhibition, Cook turns his attention to what he calls mythic American monuments both literal and implied. Embedded in his new works are questions relating to a national mythos contained in such political and cultural phrases as Manifest Destiny, liberty and justice for all, the Golden West, and the American Way and to the monuments that represent them. The body of work as a whole is entitled Instructions. The artists concern is how these icons or monuments exist in the American psyche as acts of memory and how these acts of memory can instruct us as Americans. When we look at the paintings we begin with monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, or the Supreme Court Building clothed in a smoky mist of dream and myth, and our first impression is of the traditional instruction: the Statue of Liberty, for instance, stands in our national memory for Liberty and the Supreme Court for Justice. But, through distinctive coloring, symbolic details, and a novel technique of layering, the artist presents us with new, less traditional instructions. In several of the new paintings a line drawing face of a Daddy Warbucks/Mr. Clean figure seems gradually to emerge and to superimpose itself on the monument in question. The figure takes many forms but is perhaps always us--the audience as well as the painter--the participators in the process by which we allow ourselves to be contained by the destructive lies of our culture. Several paintings in the series contain the letters OK, which add to the irony already present in the juxtaposition between the ubiquitous face and the monuments. OK was, we remember, originally a military term meaning Orders Known, used before executing a command.
When we look at the painting of Mount Rushmore, for instance, (painted ironically in the commercially labeled hue of "Indian Red") and gradually become aware of the sinister Mr. Clean taking command of it, are we echoing the OK we see there? Are we celebrating the myth of the four presidents (clearly decomposing when we look at the details of their faces), or are we finally recognizing the carving on the mountain as a desecration of the sacred Black Hills, as graffiti on land stolen from the Indian people in the name of Manifest Destiny?
Related questions arise from the painting of the Statue of Liberty and our gradual realization of the presence in it of a secondary line painting of Miss Liberty in restraints, or from the painting of the Supreme Court Building with its obscenely-distorted frieze and its larger than life line figure plagued by a pain in the neck.
A less obvious instruction is contained in the particularly elegant painting of an old reconstructed southern mansion revealed behind a mist of green with little spots some viewers might see romantically as fireflies and some as bruises on a southern mythology which veils undermining social and historical realities.
In one of the most complex of the new paintings we view Disneylands Magic Kingdom through a purple/violet--the color of royalty--layer of misty memory. As an icon of American nostalgia it is undermined and its essential tackiness revealed by a series of cadmium yellow/orange teeth that float out from and over the castle like dancing sugar-plum fairies, bearing ironical happy faces reminding us of decay and the dentists eternal words: Its not going to hurt (read: denial). Of course, we know it always does hurt. A still closer look at the painting shows us decay expressed in paint that seems, like the faces on Cooks Mount Rushmore, to be decomposing.
Michael Cook never thinks of his paintings as a substitute for reality, though; we can always appreciate his art for its energy and power as painting. We are drawn into the ideas by the painting, not into the painting by the ideas. The flatter and drier tone of the surface and texture of the new works reflect, for instance, not only the desert environment of New Mexico and the dwindling of its resources, but the drying up of a whole cultures values. As Cooks political point of view has developed, so have the formal and textural qualities of his paintings. Throughout his career, he has made use of the materials of his art and the places in which his paintings were shown in such a way as to express his sense of the artwork as cultural residue or artifact of experience.
In his paintings of the late 1970s, for example, Cook turned to the bubble chamber image and device as not only his central metaphor but as itself the actual subject of a series of paintings. To the majority of his viewers these paintings of lines and curves and dots and spirals were as abstract as the intricate compositions of Mondrian or the conceptual wall drawings of Sol Lewitt.
In a 1983 exhibit at the Grayson Gallery in Chicago Cook extended the use of his alchemical images by making them more literally figurative even as they took on a more abstract symbolic burden. In one painting the alchemical sign for "work completed" is a bright red form on a black background set off by a mysterious white city emitting light on the horizon. What Cook is doing here is conflating alchemy and his own developing social vision.
This conflation becomes increasingly clear in the mid eighties when the Cold War was at its height. The paintings of this period become increasingly political and ironical. In one painting entitled Ashes, for example, a mandalic Happy Face, Cooks Earth symbol, is overshadowed by a looming bomb.
Using a Soviet pamphlet of nuclear survival for his core images and Sir James Frazers The Periodic Expulsion of Evil in a Material Vehicle as a theme, in the San Francisco series of paintings, Cook becomes still more figurative in his approach and is able to bring an element of dry humor to depictions of male and female figures locked into the boxes which are their survival suits, the shelters in which they sit, and the paintings in which they and their shelters are contained. The container metaphor, and the related question of the relationship between the painting surface, the wall of display, the gallery as container and the viewer, always important elements in Cooks vision, are accentuated by a new painting support by which the paintings are extended like free-floating surfaces away from the gallery walls to heighten the tension between painted surface and implied illusion. Cook has continued to use this hanging device. It is particularly effective, for example in Instructions/Niagra in the current exhibition.
A Note on David Leeming:
David Leeming's most recent work is a book on the expatriate painter Beauford Delaney. His previous works include the biography of James Baldwin as well as "The World of Myth" written with Jake Paige.