The protagonist of Abel Ferrara's film The Driller Killer (1980) is a frustrated painter who, lacking the talent to realize his imaginings on canvas, allows his thwarted energies to erupt into violence.
As he swaps paintbrush for drill bit, his murders become the masterpieces he could not paint. At first glance the only clue that Nigel Cooke's work explores a similar short circuit are the livid heads planted in (or growing out of) the concrete at the foot of his painting Catabolic Vanitas (2001) - garish, grotesque, but painstakingly rendered. Cooke, though, is interested in homicide as an allegory of the process of painting: the work itself is also a mortification, a huge waste of time and effort which gradually nullifies whatever expressive value it originally held for the artist. His painstaking art turns the driller killer's helpless desublimation of the aesthetic impulse into a measured and meticulous attack on the metaphysical bounty of Classical painting. Aiming for a deathly completeness, it invokes the visual release of the epic vista, only to mock the omniscient gaze with a surfeit of detail.
As appalled as Ferrara's anti-hero at the gap between conception and execution, between the idealized sovereignty of the artist and the abject servility of creation, Cooke's work is an allegory on the absurdity of painting in an age of virtual reality and cybernetic systems. His theme is the futility of not just the modern painter's situation (alluded to in compositional non sequiturs, narrative elisions and iconographic monstrosities that frustrate the paintings' attempt to become 'good') but also the heroic enterprises of artists of previous eras. For Cooke the Sublime is no more than a bad infinity, a sealed horizon. At his hands the serene landscapes of Classical painting curdle into a cod-Existentialist phantasmagoria, a vast, claustrophobic space in which the wide blue yonder becomes a kind of open prison.
Cooke's work combines an adolescent's preoccupation with epic grandeur - of scale and narrative subject - with the obsessive detail of a forensic scientist (he wears surgeon's goggles when painting, to ensure the resolution borders on hyperreal). But this does not mean that his laborious, unnecessary diligence has necessarily escaped the mundane world of purposes. On the contrary, the painting exposes its own profanity, walking a thin line between wonder and absolute bathos, terror and technique.
The paintings read well as closed systems, self-sufficient worlds in which an event such as a lightning bolt from a bleary lunar eye illuminates a mysterious field of possibility. In the 'daylight' paintings the actual event or cause of the world is absent - we are looking at a threshold condition, before or after the cataclysmic ignition that has either set the world running or is about to do so. But the consolations of this existential stasis are immediately profaned with contemporary trash; hence in Catabolic Vanitas narcissistically coiffed severed heads lie around like rejected Popstars contestants or, depending how you read the hairstyles, refuse from a passing age of heroic individualism.
The associations are uniformly unwholesome: this could be a concentration camp, a religious sacrifice or some J. G. Ballard schoolyard where the children have trashed the library and buried the teachers. Events and their motivation remain inscrutable: the only gesture at meaning is provided by the items of furniture that recur in both the day and the night-time paintings - the sprawl of unidentified books on the floor, the bits of discarded peel, the abandoned fried chicken boxes - to suggest a state of dissolution. Even the sky proves to be a depthless illusion, not open space but a concrete wall, punctured here and there by tiny slit windows - perhaps it's the wall of the severed heads' prison.
If each painting is a system, then the system looks like it is breaking down, reaching a condition in which language itself is depleted, unable to make distinctions. The graffiti that blossoms at the foot of the wall in Catabolic is (even by the genre's own standards of encryption) illegible, and there is an even more explicit aphasia in the painting Smile for the Monkey Men (2001-2). Here the sky/wall has sprouted a thousand windows, like a mute Tower of Babel, behind which one may infer invisible, isolated agents. Their cells are linked together by a network of lank ropes, slack lianas on which monkeys derisively swing. Now the graffiti fumes around the window slits, a routine rebellion trying to articulate identity within a homogenizing network. Signs do not open out onto other worlds but enclose their hosts within their impersonal circuits, offering a travesty of the 'communications revolution', a world governed by entropy, inertia, indistinctness.
If Hieronymous Bosch's paintings offered meaningful mutations in biblical code, obscene hybrids as visual puns that could be decoded into vernacular sayings, satiric or gnomic, Cooke's work lacks any code for decrypting the monstrosities. His paintings bring to mind Walter Benjamin's comment on Kafka's enigmatic modern-day fables: they are like proverbs for which the keys have been lost, the significance infinitely deferred. And, as with Kafka, this prevailing indeterminacy is by no means a liberating condition. But these paintings are also temporal anomalies. They have a studied look of antiquity, as though Cooke were seeking to infect our recent past of individual self-assertion with the musty antiquity of a Dutch still-life. As the title suggests, and the symbolic spray-painted hieroglyphics (a spliff-smoking skull and lambent candle) confirm, Catabolic Vanitas is a genuine memento mori but also a reminder that once death is conceived as part of a system rather than as an end point to it, it loses its clarity. Hence one cannot say if the severed heads are dead or not, but the whole question of dying - dying traditions, forms of subjectivity, states of matter - is laid to rest, perhaps as a salvation as yet to be decoded, perhaps as the ultimate joke.
Cooke's exaggerated rhetoric is as desperate as it is arch - a sombre caricature. His paintings bespeak an enjoyment of the perverse, of the sordid obverse of transparency, immediacy, the healthy energy of communication. They appear to reiterate the value of contemplation, of isolation, to restate the importance of such painfully slow and detailed work. The studio may be ridiculous but it also affords room for thought. But beyond that, Cooke's paintings are not really intelligible as paintings at all. A mere assemblage of techniques, assiduously applied paint, sedulous layering, drippings and stipplings out of Changing Rooms, they are not organic, integrated, but more a series of devices deployed to lay bare painting's resources of consolation, its claims to exteriority, its aim to escape. The painting is not a door into another world but a quintessence of the instrumental processes that suffuse the world it emerges from - the only difference is the space of reflection, the infinite regress, it opens up. These phantasmagorical scenes do reveal 'another universe' but recapitulate in abyssal form the problems and inertia of our own state of exception. The world is the case the paintings are suffering from, but here at least the sickness is vital.