'21st Century: Art in the First Decade' is an exhibition, publication, blog and series of public programs at the Queensland Art Gallery l Gallery of Modern Art that explore the art of the past ten years. As an expanded platform for the exhibition, the '21st Century Blog' functions as a source book of reference material and contributions provided by artists, curators and writers. Read more



Nigel Cooke | To work is to play (detail) 2008 | Oil on canvas | Purchased 2008 with funds from the Estate of Lawrence F King in memory of the late Mr and Mrs SW King through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

TO WORK IS TO PLAY by Nigel Cooke

As we know, the history of art is as much a story of groups, cliques and societies as it is of individual achievements. Many of these groups have shaped the way we understand whole eras of art, by harnessing the political and social climate of the times to the actions of a collection of individuals. They have created a vivid picture of a moment, whilst providing a model for social cooperation based on the primacy of intellectual enquiry.

At the same time, however, the group or society has provided an excuse for the perpetuation of mediocrity (through denial and mutual appreciation), social exclusion, hierarchy and conservatism. It is a model that has been hijacked in the name of fear; being an artist can be a lonely and difficult occupation. It can make things simpler and easier to continue if one is insulated from critical risk, but this of course destroys the true potential of the creative process to provoke discourse.

My painting To work is to play 2008 is a large-scale work that satirises exactly this reactionary form of the club or society. In a composition generated from a mixture of overlaid projected images and intuitive painterly moments, we meet a host of artists in various states of despair and abjection. They drink, paint, vomit and collapse in a bubble of their own failure, cut off from the world of judgement and responsibility, and surrounded by the ciphers and spectres of their own imaginations. A colony of devout painter-scholars, they are engaged in the process of delusion by which all their actions are immediately justified. They even paint portraits of each other in states of anguish: on the far left, a painter pins up a shabby yellow portrait of another painter in a strange state of shock, his balloon-like head a bad pastiche of Edvard Munch’s The Scream 1893. The perpetrator wears a hoddie bearing the image of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait, the one following the severing of his ear, in a kind of egocentric over-identification with the suffering of Van Gogh. One character (horizontal, centre) has blacked out, his face revolving and mutating to form a portrait in the style of one of his peers (painted in toothpaste-like blues and whites). As a stylistic anomaly it is there to satisfy the rhythm of the composition that the figure is trapped in, underlining the subservience of all involved to the logic of the balanced composition – for them it is the force controlling their reality, and has a magic almost worthy of worship.

Architecture provides the stage set for this. In a run-down contemporary take on the elevated classicism of Nicholas Poussin — whose figures in contemplative architectural arrangements symbolize the highest intellectual ambitions of the time — this space represent an irrational and paranoid mess, a flawed modernist sprawl to house the egocentric daubing and meddling of a band of has-been artist-thinkers. Where Poussin painted crumbling pillar fragments around the figure of a scholar in the arrangement of celestial bodies, the architecture here represents a monument to intellectual impotence. The characters are trapped in a self-reflexive world where who paints (painter) and what is painted (painting) become indistinguishable, where the closeness of the self-congratulatory society has generated a feedback loop of meaning where mimicry guarantees both local success and inertia. This is therefore an allegory, above all, of the psychological paradox of the process of creativity – the co-dependency between objectivity and the impossibility of objectivity, and the dangers, problems and illusions of having to be both a maker and a critical viewer of what is made.

Nigel Cooke is a British artist renowned for his large-scale, meticulously realised paintings that depict fantastical, hyper-realistic scenes of urban decay. Cooke’s work references a wide range of painting styles and traditions; in Cooke’s words, he wants to simultaneously represent ‘all the characteristics of painting, from the retarded to the sophisticated . . . as though the whole past lives of the medium were flashing before its eyes’.

Categories: Contributor, Writing

One Response to TO WORK IS TO PLAY by Nigel Cooke

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