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The paintings of Michael Cook
by Robert Ware
We used to believe that a truly harmonious relationship would result when man took his identity from his setting…Now we are inclined to manipulate the environment, use it as a tool for creating our identity. [J.B. Jackson, 1970]
My task which I am trying to achieve is…to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything. [Joseph Conrad, 1897]
Americans are rapidly losing their sense of place and their local loyalties as a result of cultural homogenization. Suburban sprawl, strip malls, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Costco, McDonalds, KFC, and Taco Bell have all alienated and displaced Americans from the places they knew, or might have known, a generation earlier. What was special about where we live — in terms of history, traditions, institutions, colors, smells, in short its distinctive ambience, its soul — has disappeared. We all know the term “multi-centered society,'' and know that it is us, cut loose from the past and from the things that made it distinctive and meaningful. The problem is particularly acute for those of us who came of age in the first onslaught of this cultural white-washing in the decade after World War Two. The new interstate highway system connected cities and towns more closely in ways that were unimaginable a decade earlier; and, lured by these speedy asphalt arteries, millions hit the road to “see America first.” Television, too, more than radio, warped our sense of community, inviting into our lives Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Howdy Doody, the evening news; and all the commercials, for blue-print products and businesses created a thousand miles away and popping up on every corner. There is little left of the local and the real in the American experience; and there is little left to be truly interested in, too little left to see.
Having grown up in the 1950s, in central Florida, Michael Cook witnessed first-hand the rapid destruction of “old Florida,” begun in 1945, for the new one, composed of high-rise hotels and housing projects, strip malls, fast-food palaces, and other services for the anticipated waves of tourists and retirees after World War Two. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of the state nearly doubled, from 2.7 to 5 million. What little there was of a community ambience in the state before the post-war boom was mostly gone by 1960. Contrast this with the establishment of NASA in 1958, one of the most momentous changes to the American consciousness in the twentieth century. Living within sight of Cape Canaveral, Cook witnessed the first rockets thunder to the heavens, concluding with the flight of Apollo 11 to the moon on July 16, 1969 (the artist’s birthday) which resulted in the first human to step onto another world; fantastic events to be sure, and utterly transfixing. Moon rockets were real, not science fiction; and he believed he would no doubt be able to orbit the earth in the future. This fact impressed him powerfully with live video of the first human step on to the Moon. Clearly different than the usual television news, this was a watershed moment. The loss of culture and the attendant explosion of superficial chatter, he had witnessed so far was utterly contrasted by his total absorption in this event. Here was something worth paying attention to. Still a boy, and unable to put it into words, he intuited enough of its impact to motivate him as a mature artist to deal with the contradictions.
The latest in a long career, the Venetian paintings likewise embody oppositions, in their formal structures and concomitant meanings, which have to do with our relative ability to see. The series is comprised of three separate sequences, each with its own subject lurking beneath a scrim of vertical “blinds.” First in the series are landscapes; the second, clouds; and lastly, and strangest of the group, are the “id” drawings. Besides their varying content, each of the sequences has its unique perspective. One looks down on the landscapes, up at the clouds, and straight ahead at the id drawings, and hence the subtitles for the sequences, respectively, “The Above,” “The Below,” and the “In-Between” that Cook used at the beginning of the series. However, as the series progresses (it’s still ongoing as I write), the ideas and corresponding titles have been refined and the once-hard boundaries of the subtitles have since softened. This is especially true for the clouds, which may still be looked up to but may also be looked down on or at, like the ids. This is because the clouds are intended to be more than clouds; their shapes connoting islands, faces, creatures and the like, that are normally seen from above or head-on.
What is still common to all of the paintings, and their most salient feature, is the scrim of evenly spaced, vertical bands running top to bottom and across the their entire widths. The reason for the series’ title, the bands are virtual Venetian blinds, though tipped on edge so they run vertically instead of horizontally. Like Venetian blinds, the bands partially obscure what’s behind them, giving half the view and thus taxing the viewer’s brain fill in the rest. From a distance, the effect is more veil-like, and not particularly obtrusive, except for a faint vertical orientation and bright slashes of color here and there. Close up, however, the blinds’ sharp edges cut-up the illusion so that the painting becomes an interesting post-modernist abstraction. From body length, however, both cases apply, and the viewer is thrown into a mild but effective gestalt turmoil.
Cook employs what’s known as the Munker-White illusion, a phenomenon that plays havoc with our perceptual certainties of color and tone by putting them against a variety of other colors and tones. An almost limitless number of unexpected visual deceptions result, including shifts in hue, brightness, relative size and position in space, halation – when a color seems to bleed beyond its borders – and vibration. The monochromatic blinds installed by Cook over the paintings, only set the stage for these and other optical challenges. By adding occasional lozenges of pure color along the blinds do these effects take hold. These optical highlights distract from the painting beneath, which we must struggle harder to see. The point of the blinds is to stop the viewer and challenge him to look, long and hard, rather than to do what we always do in this modern age, to glance, make a mental note, and move on, only to forget what it was we just saw.
These and other effects depend on the sharp transitions along the edges of the colored shapes, known as T-junctions. The cleaner the edges between colors, the stronger the effect; and Cook goes to great pains in his paintings to assure that the T-junctions are as crisp as possible, masking the under-painting after it is thoroughly dry and varnishing the exposed areas before painting on the blinds. The varnish blocks any bleed between the layers, allowing the blinds to stand out, perceptually and physically, with exceptional clarity.
Cook’s sources for his experiments in color include the paintings of JWM Turner who thoroughly exploited the possibilities of color interactions to enhance the apparent luminosity of his canvases. Turner’s keen awareness of color in context was clearly demonstrated by his habit of finishing his paintings after they were hung in the salons, adjusting their highlights and color relationships in order to make them stand out among the other entries on the walls.1 The unique qualities of decorativeness and the prioritizing of tertiary compliments and the interaction of tone and color in the paintings of Edouard Vuillard were models that Cook likewise took to heart in his own paintings. In terms of modern painting, Josef Albers’ seminal book The Interaction of Color (1963) and his longest-running series, Homage to the Square, in which he demonstrated the extraordinary malleability and precision of color relationships available to the painter, were vitally important to Cook. Finally, but not the last, New Mexico modernist Raymond Jonson’s post-1933 paintings likewise introduced to Cook to a further range of possibilities in color, partly dependent on Albers and other color theorists, but done in ways and in a palette that are distinctive.
Another aspect shared by these paintings is their horizontal, rectangular format. Although their proportions vary slightly, from 1:1.3 to 1:1.56, their dimensions closely approximate a horizontal window in the bedroom of Cook’s first Albuquerque house, located across the room from his bed and equipped with Venetian blinds. In the mornings and evenings he would look out to the sky through the half-open blinds. He noticed how the blinds broke the view into narrow strips, alternately sky outside and blinds inside. He noted, too, how the ambient light in the room reflected back on the blinds, and how it transformed the infinitely subtle and changing blues of the sky between morning and evening. The certainties that warm colors advance and cool ones recede broke down, as did qualities of near and far, inside and outside; a concert of dissonances that was strangely harmonious.
When Cook began the Venetian series seven years later, in 2008, he kept the format of this window but dropped the horizontal Venetian blinds in favor of the vertical motif. Better suited to landscapes, the first in the series, the vertical blinds suggested other formal and perceptual connections of top and bottom, and sky and earth (which in turn suggest correspondences of spirit and matter, heaven and hell, and so on); without sacrificing the salient qualities he’d become accustomed to with the Venetians – particularly the push/pull of color and light.
Cook did not drop the name, however. The associations of “Venetian” were too intriguing to leave off. One of these is the exoticism and mystery of the city itself, whose passageways twist and wind randomly, allowing one to easily be lost, but not to care, since the surprising views are always enchanting. Another is the term “Venetian color, or colorito,” the process of achieving luminous effects through the judicious layering and blending of colors that originated in the sixteenth century, primarily with Titian, and was subsequently taken up Tintoretto, Canaletto, and other Venetian painters. Cook’s primary inspiration came, though, from his discovery of Turner’s brilliant paintings of Venice in the Tate in the 1970s.
Another connection – completely serendipitous and unintended yet related to the artist’s purpose – is in the origins of Venetian blinds. Their invention was not in Venice but in Persia (modern-day Iran), discovered by Venetian traders who brought it to Venice in the 18th century and later exported it to France, where the blinds are still known as "Les Persiennes." This history adds a political and slightly more chilling connotation, exemplifying the Middle East’s current flirtation with nuclear research, for better or worse, and the deceptive blinds it employs with the West to continue doing it.
The inaugural works in the series, feature several landscapes in New Mexico that host the state’s iconic military and scientific installations. Distinctions of covert /overt abound: secret research and weapons caches above and below ground. The subject of Venetian [Socorro], for example, is the Very Large Array that blankets the Plains of San Agustin, west of Socorro; while Venetian [Manzano], refers to the mountain range east of Albuquerque that is home to The Manzano Nuclear Weapons Storage Area; and Venetian [Alamogordo], which points to White Sands Missile Range and the Trinity Site (seen through the blinds), where the first nuclear weapon was detonated, and nearby Holloman Air Force Base. All of these installations are distanced by their spy-plane perspectives; and, camouflage behind the vertical bands, the viewer can’t help but feel their elusiveness and secrecy, whether intended or not. As a result, one must work hard to “see” what’s there.
The messages contained in these works about nuclear research and weaponry, and the covert operations that surround them, recall similar themes in Cook’s Day/Night series from 1981-82. In both series, formal devices lifted from the history of painting combine with socio-political subjects, subverting the latter’s integrity and power and begging the question “are things really what they appear to be?” Both series, and the Venetians in particular with their stuttering blinds augmented with quick flecks of bright color, convey in their layers the restlessness of modern life and our obsession to multi-task and take short cuts. The requirements imposed by these pictures are, in part, indebted to Robert Fichter, Cook’s teacher and mentor in the 1970s at Florida State University, Tallahassee. Fichter, it has been said, “never” lacked a political purpose.2 His drawings, photographs (really multiple mediums more than pure photography), and writings, densely layered with intentionally contradictory objects and messages, embodied the crosstalk of modern America and the resulting mass of conflicting messages and double-standards. Interestingly, Fichter’s image of himself as a “Zen-proletarian artist,” and its implications of passive contemplation coupled with the politically centered agitprop in the work, might just as well serve for most of Cook’s activity over the last thirty years.3
The second body of paintings in the series is titled Venetian [Mesoscale].4 In these works, Cook steps away from the politics of the landscapes and returns to his original inspiration in the window, and its impressions of up/down, in/out, etc. Transformed by the blinds, the mid-sized, compact clouds take on a variety of shapes and connotations, from land masses (Venetian [Yellow Continent] and Venetian [Violet Continent]) to mythological beings (Venetian [Self], a Hopi “mudhead”). Like many myths, mudheads embody a dual nature, at once ethereal creatures, a race of healers, warriors, and magicians who speak to and convey messages from the Ancient Ones, they are also clowns and buffoons (mud-dled) who tell rude jokes and play mischievous tricks. Embracing two disparate roles, the mudheads parallel Cook’s persona as an artist, and the designs in the resulting works, particularly in the optical trickery of the Venetians.
Near-divine, yet rude and predictable, the ambiguous nature of the mudheads is, to stretch the metaphor somewhat, “cloudy.” Because of this imprecision, the mudheads are the perfect counterpart to the vagaries built into Cook’s sequence of Clouds. As mentioned earlier, the clouds have multiple personalities, being at once clouds, islands, landforms, animals, and archetypes. Add to this shape shifting the intense accents of the Munker-White lozenges and the viewer is left a stranded. The smallest Cloud, the 9x14 inch gouache paintings, are in this respect the most intense and challenging of the series. One might compare the indistinct nature of these gouaches and the larger canvases in the sequence to Carl Jung’s “clouds of cognition,” the instinctual intimation of “absolute knowledge” within the collective unconscious. Such clouds, he wrote, appear to us in space-timelessness “as a primordial image with many aspects,” alternately appearing and disappearing.5
Extending the psychological motif are the peculiar drawings that underlie the last of the Venetian series, titled Venetian [ID]. The backgrounds are mockups of spontaneously realized, unconscious notations quickly put down on paper while watching the evening news (Fig 1) The perspectives of the first two sequences turn decisively inward or, better, inside-out, conflating conscious and sub-conscious, global and personal, clarity and irrationality, insight and oversight. The news is not news so much as a quick breakdown of events whose content is guided by marketing data. And there are the commercials – again – all those products and images flashing by in unrelated, spurious 10, 15, 30-second bytes, designed to strike the psyche like smart bombs. So lulled by repetition we don’t know what hit us. Cook, on the other hand, decided to expose himself to the barrage to see what happens. He quickly inscribes his gut reflexes on paper which he then works up into full-sized paintings and obscured by a scrim of vertical blinds. The colors are bright and distinct, and a vital element of the paintings – Venetian color in every sense. The color in this sequence is the most intense of the three, the Munker-White lozenges, more saturated and elongated, play on the eye more decisively; even at a distance they mimic the over-wrought color of an LED display. Changing technology and the look it imposes on things is certainly a significant part of our collective psyche, and what constitutes in no small way the look of the Venetian paintings from beginning to end.
The series is finished; although it will go on. Perhaps Cook will turn to horizontal blinds to see what happens; or perhaps he’ll move on to something else altogether. For the moment, this is the last and, in this writer’s opinion, most intriguing iteration of an idea that has sustained him for decades: to slow us down teach us to see, even if it means that he has to first blind us.
1 Cook gained and awareness and appreciation of Turner early on with visits to his English aunt and uncle in the 1960s, then living in London and later Deal. Cook traveled in “Turner country,” the setting of Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844), in Taplow-Maidenhead, just west of London, as well as Margate and Deal, east of London on the coast. Both of them artists, Pamela Burns and David Atkins, provided Cook an exceptional education in art throughout his life. He credits them as among his most important influences.
2 Kenneth Donney, “Fearless Fighter, and the Anti-Humbug Movement,” in Robert Fichter: Photography and Other Questions (Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1983), p. vii.
3 The Zen Tsuki no kokoro - a mind like the moon – refers to the necessity of maintaining vigilance over one’s surroundings at all times, as the full moon reflects its light earthward. Also a proletarian, Fichter is a revolutionary who challenges the status quo.
4 Mesoscale is a meteorological term for the study of mid-sized phenomena from 10 to 1000 kilometers in radius.
5 C.G. Jung, “On Life after Death,” in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, c1963), p. 9-10.
Robert Ware is Raymond Jonson Curator at the University of New Mexico Art Museum
Robert Ware is currently Raymond Jonson Curator at the University of New Mexico Art Museum in Albuquerque. He received his Ph.D. in modern and contemporary art history from the University of New Mexico in 1997; and has taught the history of art at UNM; Columbia College, Chicago; the Savannah College of Art and Design; and the College of Santa Fe. He is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, and is the author of articles, catalogs, and most recently the book To Form From Air: Music and the Art of Raymond Jonson (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2009)