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Nigel Cooke's Night Crossing

After showing at Tate, MoMa and the Guggenheim, Cooke moves his melancholic art to London's Modern Art gallery

This month, Modern Art is host to a new solo exhibition by Nigel Cooke entitled Night Crossing. Having previously displayed his work at many celebrated galleries such as Tate Britain, the MoMA and the Guggenheim Museum, the show is set to be a much visited and exciting event. Night Crossing presents a set of new paintings which display a destructive and melancholy world where creative, artistic characterisation is paired with degeneration, existentialist crisis and hedonistic abandonment. Dazed Digital caught up with Nigel to find out more...

Dazed Digital: Having achieved a tremendous amount on the art scene, I wanted to begin by asking you where your beginnings in art were. How did you know that you wanted to become an artist?
Nigel Cooke: I inherited some art equipment from my Grandfather when he died and I started to play around with it that, but I wasn’t very good at it. So I became addicted, as something that I couldn’t do – it’s something that hypnotised me the minute I tried it. The ability to master it has not been handed down through generations, even though people were painting when we were first learning to stand upright. So it struck me as an odd, mysterious material which is full of human potential but is not yielding, not helpful in any way. It’s really separate to everything else, and it felt alternative, more than music. When I first did a painting, it felt like a radical thing to do, because nobody wants another painting – you have to produce art that reinvents something. The job you have when you pick up a paintbrush is to reinvent something that is as old as civilisation, and that is the addiction, the challenge.

DD: So you see art as a personal challenge?
Nigel Cooke: Yeah, the idea is to not make anymore, to ask the question: ‘Do we need any more of these in the world?’ The only way that we do is when we get this compulsion, this perverse nagging. In a way, everything that I embark on is always in a spirit of failure, that can’t possibly work; it has to be the worst idea in the world. It reminds me a little bit of being a chef, when they make a perfect breakfast that is beautiful and revolutionary, they apply themselves to that and they produce an experience you’ve never had, although to look at it, it still looks like the same thing. And it is a little bit like that in painting, you are trying to say that you know it already, but it is also new, and the newness is so buried in the image, it is not really the material, or composition but it is just mysteriously in there. And that is what I try to do.

DD: So moving on to your new exhibition, Night Crossing, you obviously work on such a large scale. How long does it take you to paint one image?
Nigel Cooke: It’s hard to tell. We have a log for each one at the studio, where a photograph is taken everyday where we have a diary of materials we used and what happened. And you look back and some of them will be very quick – some of them will be six weeks, a long one might be a year and a half. In a way the paintings, how long they take and how long it takes to solve are not the same thing. The painting may take a year but to solve it may take an hour. Most of the paintings get scrapped and are a disaster, most of what is underneath them are mistakes. Sometimes you can do something for a year and destroy it and then you could make three in a month. You are learning how to solve problems, not just making images or products. Painting has to be the journey or experience for me, you have to conclude it.

DD: Your work seems to be based in theoretical and philosophical understanding. What is the journey of producing one of these paintings? Do you come up with the concept first, or do you find yourself painting and then link it with something that you have already learnt?
Nigel Cooke: Well there is always an image first. It is not a theoretical or word based formula to begin with. My attraction to painting is that it is a way of learning about ideas that I have got elsewhere. So the theoretical stuff comes from my involvement with the image, and by growing with it. I am drawn to something that begs the question ‘why am I doing this? Why have I started to think about this?’It’s like the subconscious, it pops out, and you say ‘let’s look at what that is, what is it about that image that is important?’ I am trying to make images that stick in the mind, in a good way, something that you can’t get rid of, that actually affect the way you see things. Getting to that point involves a kind of learning and rigorous re-acquaintance with your own product – learning what it was that drew you to it in the first place happens through the painting, and then gradually happens through words. Often I find that after I complete a work I have very little to say about it, that comes later, it slowly comes out. But it is always the image first.

DD: Your painting Departure is a re-working of a painting of the same title by Max Beckmann. Was the painting something you had been thinking about for a while or like you say, did it just pop out for you as you were working? What was the influence there?
Nigel Cooke: It is a mixture of things. There was an article in the newspaper about debt and I started painting these when the recession was starting to become part of everybody’s consciousness. I was reading that the current national debt had only been as bad in the Second World War. It made me think about the huge differences between the two times, and I just remembered the art work that was made during the rise of Nazi Germany. Beckmanns central panel is of these figures in a boat, escaping, whilst the panels either side show the tortured reality of the time. And I wondered what it would look like if there was a contemporary version of that. I thought maybe it would be figures on a stag weekend, taking a boat out to Ibiza. The figures actually invite the disaster, but where they end up is in a place of change, so what it actually became is a parable of creativity that is a journey from not knowing to knowing.

DD: Are the characters in the paintings representations of artists and creatives, are they, like you say, parables or re-workings of past figures?
Nigel Cooke: Yeah, they are, in a way, based on Vincent Van Gogh originally, who is almost like the patron saint of artistic history. The character’s bandaged heads are a reference to Van Gogh and also how Van Gogh became the cliché of what an artists life is like, for example, success only after death, the tortured soul, being outside the fringes of society, not functioning on any level other than the visual. I resent the image, I don’t like the image of one having to cut ones ear off. But also, there is something about that isolation and complete commitment to the visual image that is attractive and true, so it is about the idea of a rather compromising stereotype having a great truth. I am always attracted to images which are negative and positive in one go, so I started to develop this figure that was half Van Gogh, but one which is also a great man of letters like Sophocles, but then bringing it round to also be an older version of myself. I try and wrap all these things into one envelop, into a persona.

DD: I read that the characters possess ‘an abandonment of living’ – do you think that the artist needs to abandon thought in order to be creative?
Nigel Cooke: I think in some ways, yeah. I think it is a paradox - the most successful people are able to negotiate between the side of their mind that is orderly and rational and the side that is chaotic and unreasonable.  My paintings question how you actually harness this stupid side of creativity without it being purely negative and judgmental, and to actually surrender to not knowing - this is essential to creativity. Within our culture which is obsessed with utility, it is seen as a flaw, and the Van Gogh figure is actually seen as the embodiment of that flaw. You don’t actually contribute towards society or the economy until you dead and your objects are just an heirloom. Without a solution, to try and mobilise the truth of the mind through various visual means, some being recognisable, some being beautiful, ugly, confusing. But in a sense, what is trying to come through is the existential dilemma of the character, the oscillation of being human.

DD: How do you think your art work will progress next?
Nigel Cooke: I don’t know. The biggest thrill is to discover the next thing. It would be nice to look into the future, in a year’s time to see what I am doing then, because it won’t be what I expect it to be. It’s an addiction to the future. Your painter time is a sort of joke version of real time. You get to see your next bit of your life in pictures - it’s like this other timeline alongside your own life. It has to be a surprise and if I ever felt I was doing something by the watch I wouldn’t like it. If I was ever describing something rather than experiencing it I would have to stop producing art.

Night Crossing runs from Friday April 30 – Saturday May 29 at the Modern Art gallery in London