Christopher Cook at the Saul Hay Gallery. The golden age comes into the dark.

There are – to my simple mind – three elements in any painting: materials, technique and, of course, the artist’s mind.

By Richard Morris | Last updated 27 July 2022

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With Christopher Cook’s exhibition at the Saul Hay Gallery I was anxious to find out about all three, because I didn’t have a clue about any of them. The private view was well attended, but I managed to have a good chat with the artist before he was whisked off to meet potential clients.

Right, materials and technique. The story isn’t one of training at the Royal College of Art (although Cook did do that), it’s about frustration in India two decades ago.

“I spent three stints in India, trying to paint what I saw. But I just couldn’t get my head round it. Nothing was working. I couldn’t deal with the vibrant colours I saw or the pigments in the oil paints.”

So far so…well, no clearer.

“So I used to go down to the banks of the Ganges and draw abstract pictures in the sand. Then watch the shapes change as the shadows changed at sunset.”

I have to admit that I asked Christopher if drugs were involved at this stage. They weren’t of course. He said.

“One day I got back to the studio…frustrated…and there was a big bottle of graphite powder on a shelf. I mixed it with some resin and somehow the graphite granules felt like the sand. I was intrigued, so I started making pictures…black and white…graphite’s black of course. I poured the resin onto paper laid flat – previously I’d painted traditionally, standing up, arm’s length, with a brush – then I mixed the graphite with it.”

So, in a nutshell, that’s where the technique started. Dare I say unique technique?

And that’s how Cook’s reputation grew, monochrome pictures in which, he told me, “It’s really a ‘reduction’ process. I flood the surface with the graphite and resin and then take off the graphite, work into it. Scratch into it if needed.” Ahh. I had another look at one of the pieces.

So, the artist’s mind. Half of this group of paintings derive from a show in York Art Gallery. Cook was asked to reflect and create works in response to a selection of their Dutch Seventeenth Century Golden Age paintings.

An age when affluence and opulence were painted in still life, totem’s for the rich upper classes. Objects, opulent food, dramatic flower arrangements, symbols of wealth and (supposed) wellbeing. Although it must be noted here that a sub-culture of so called ‘Vanitas’ still lifes evolved; images of death and mortality…still life studies of skulls…hourglasses etc.

Cook created works using that range of symbols in graphite and resin to ‘compare and contrast’ with those seventeenth century images. “But,” he went on to explain, “that time was also the start of colonialism, military power. Beautiful idealised images at a time when modern day destruction started to evolve.”

“So in several works I introduced harsh images of modern conflict – drones, machines of war, helicopters, combat. Sometimes I was so caught up in the beauty of, say, creating flowers in graphite and resin, that I hesitated to include such stark images. But then that’s the point of the work.”

The show at Saul Hay includes those York images, plus another group created to show alongside them. The overall mood is, of course, very dark in both ‘colour’ and context.

Standing close to the surfaces, examining the technique, previously unnoticed images appear to suddenly loom into the viewers eye. Startling to say the least.

If I had read any of the above before I met Christopher, I would have been slightly nervous of who I was going to find. What kind of dark character I was going to meet. But he’s an ordinary chatty bloke with stories of artistic frustration, sand and the Ganges.

Stories which have ultimately led to his work being held in major public collections such the Camden Arts Centre. Memphis Art Museum and the Yokohama Museum of Art. His visiting fellowships include Oxford University, Frankfurt Stadelschule and California State University.

But of course, the only way to appreciate and try to absorb these often almost subliminal images in Cook’s paintings is to spend some time searching the graphite and resin at the Saul Hay Gallery. Don’t go along for an easy ride, these works make for disturbing and haunting viewing.

Selected works by Christopher Cook is at the Saul Hay Gallery until February 23rd.

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