Artist Statement by Chris Cook (2019)

I have long been fascinated by colour, its capacity to create moods and evoke emotions, and for the potential to convey harmony or instability when put together with other colours. My work is abstract and is primarily painting-based, whether in the form of installations (as in my earlier works) or on canvas. Throughout my practice I have used grids, both rigidly and loosely. I find a grid is a great tool to construct a painting as it acts as a basic structure in which to divide space and to organise colours. I tend to use colours that have some connections to me, i.e. they could be certain colours from objects and places that I remember from my childhood, or colours that I have encountered during my frequent travels through southeast Asia in recent years. I store colours up in my memory bank rather than capturing them in camera. I would also look at other painters for inspiration, ranging from Giotto, Morandi, to Matisse, for their use of colours.

Repeated and imperfect geometric shapes have crept into my work in recent years, particularly for the paintings done between 2013 and early 2018. These shapes are repeated and sub-divided further to convey irregularities and reveal other hidden geometric schemes. Together with colour, they create order, layers, movement, contradiction and complexity. Most recently I have turned to looking at certain aspects and shapes within those paintings; for example in Gold, Silver & Pink 2018, I was particularly attracted to the shimmering, hazy, pale pink pyramid shape in the middle top of the painting. I saw beauty in a particular shape which made me want to explore further, using uncomplicated geometric shapes and a more reduced palette. The subsequent small-scale studies (e.g. Lilac & Gold; Gold, White & Lilac; Red & Grey; Gold, Pink & Grey) that followed are based on simple, recurrent shapes which are put together to form yet another shape. A cropped shape suggests its continuity outside the paintings surface. The reduced palette is to create harmony and glow in the work.

Unlike previous paintings in which improvisation plays a big part, these works are done with certain shapes in mind from the inception. I like to subvert the idea of what one expects to see, an apparent harmony and equilibrium, with what one actually finds when looking closely at the painting. Though the geometric shapes may look straightforward, if one looks closely at the work they will find slight irregularities and contradictions. A diamond shape may look like it is floating in the air, yet it is anchored by two small triangles on both sides to stop it from floating away.

We often strive for a level of peace and harmony, a balance between various aspects of our lives, and though that balancing act is rarely achieved in the way we would like, the imperfections and contradictions we learn to live with are entirely natural, and we all the better for it. There is beauty in that.

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Chris Cook by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (2014)

I met Chris Cook when she was a student at the Royal Academy School in London, she was working with an idea about the sublime but found no mileage in landscape or its colors. We talked about other ubiquity of red in Hong Kong, where Chris told me that if you went to buy a plastic bucket or anything else it would likely be red, and soon after that she began to make the work that filled the room with paper hangings each painted a different shade of red.

That work, which situated the viewer in a space redefined by a concatenation of reds which could not be seen as a whole, allowed her to find a way to work with accumulations as much a subdivision. I think it also gave her an idea about what kind of intensity she wanted her work to have, or with which she wanted to work. The instability that she developed with the red installation paintings turned, in the course of her subsequent return to the stretched canvas, into something like the opposite. Now the paintings are quite small, the viewer can certainly see them all at once, but to see them is to get lost in them.

Changes Series (Untitled 12) for example is a painting which at first seems straightforward - albeit in a manner not quite recognizable - and immediately becomes nothing of the sort. What I might perhaps describe as the illuminated shape or area, approximately a lozenge but irregular, seems at first to define the painting. It is connected to the top, by a line that turns well before it reaches the bottom. There is space around it and, broadly speaking, the painting as a whole is based on red-green complementariness. As soon as one starts to look, though, one begins to see the paintings as if it were made of almost nothing but exceptions to whatever rule one thought one had seen: diversions, irregularities, the implication of another geometric scheme beneath or beside the one that one thought might give a key to the whole. Transparency is used to mislead, were one to be searching for simple logic, as in the bottom left of the painting where some shapes just get lighter as they entere the brighter light of the approximate lozenge, other shapes change their shape and also their color. What happends at the top right of the painting is very different from what happens at the upper left, and this soon makes one realize that the whole right hand side is organized, or works, differently than the left, the movement from the left-middle of the top that produces the outline of the lozenge turning out to be one that differentiates as much as it unites the two sides. It is at that point, possibly, that one becomes most engaged with the red/violet and bluish green/yellowish green variety that keeps parts of the painting apart from one another while maintaining a consistent light throughout the whole.

I feel a great deal of commonality with Cook's paintings, and could also point to others of her generation with whose work hers might be seen to have something in common, in some instances for obvious reasons but more generally because she uses generic, geometric shapes and makes work at once complicated and subtle. I think, though, it more important here to address the singularity of her work. Abstract or nonrepresentational painting, as a kind of art, is now a little more than a hundred years old. Cook and others treat it as an ongoing practice, indifferent to the many attempts to declare it dead on account of we find it very much alive. I think, moreover, that the geometric is such a basic way of working that it is in practice possibly the only actually international painting there is. In part this is because abstraction's genealogy is so all over the place on account of its internationalism, it cannot really ever have or have had an original center or place of origin, like for example Surrealism. My friend Rex Butler, a professor at the Univsersity of Queensland, has drawn attention to the similarity between some Australian and some Californian abstract painters of the fifties, who coincidentally looked to Kandinsky where those in New York did no such thing. An international tendency with representatives on either side of the Pacific, but whose participants were mutually unaware of each other. Linked also I should think by coincidence that the light in Brisbane is pretty similar to the light in California.

Cook's work is almost certainly best seen if one pays attention to what it is about in that is not quite like other paintings with which one might compare it, and this is what is so exciting about the kind of paintings she makes. Abstract painting is an instrument, its components are pretty straightforward, what people do with it that separates their work from others all the more visible because of the similarities that a shared set of terms make obvious. The red lacquer reference is a thing of the past but I think that what has replaced it, as in the painting discussed here, are kinds of transparency that have as much to do with the translucent light of screens as anything else, which association is for me heightened by this painting's palette. The way the top of the painting works, particularly Cook's use of the upper right, is semiologically fascinating and the action at the top's relationship to the lozenge shape is, I think, unlike anything I've seen in any other painting. It is semiologically fascinating because it frustrates any reading of the painting that doesn't see the upper right as having a significance as a zone of complication, quite at odds with the western tradition of reading from the upper left and as such a significant frustration of it, particularly when one proceeds from there to the rest of the painting, and the place of the movement from the center upper left of the line that joins the perimeter to the lozenge.

The majority of the younger painters I know make smaller rather than larger paintings nowadays, not least because big has become so continuous with bombast. Cook's paintings of the past couple of years or so may in my view be said to involve the viewer in a more developed relationship between repetition and incident than her earlier works, and perhaps are becoming more specific with regard to what kind of surface(s) and space(s) she wants paint to involve.

That said, there aren't any other paintings quite like these, as will be obvious to those who look at them with paintings they think similar in mind. To return to the internationalist theme, in Britain her work might find itself compared with the work made by the team of Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings, who use pattern and geometric shapes and on occasion colours not unlike Cook's. In America there are a host of people with whose work hers might be compared, and it would include Rebecca Norton's work, some of Shirley Kaneda's and also some of mine. That is to say that she works in a field which is not confined to a single generation and its enthusiasm's, or, and this is much more important, to a shared definition of painting or any particular kind of painting. Unable to see Cook's work except in photographs for the past few years, I have been careful not to say too much about what I can only imagine in regard to how these works sit in a space. Likewise,I have not pursued with her any questions about content. However, from what I can see and do know, it is clear to me that her work should be of interest to anyone engaged in making or thinking about abstract painting. Cook's early work often pops up in my conversations with other artists, now the more recent work will as well.

© Text by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Los Angeles, June 2014

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Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (2003)

When I first saw Chris Cook's work, two or three years ago, it struck me that the red I was seeing in it was both familiar and unfamiliar. The reds found in Matisse's Red Studio or Rothko or Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis would actually look a bit restrained and even brown placed beside the red Cook uses, but while unfamiliar within the lists of greatest hits of modern art it was familiar to me as a version of the reds one sees all over the place in New York's Chinatown, where I once lived. Much more intense and also slightly more crimson than the others I've mentioned, most thoroughly itself when the property of a lacquered surface, Cook has used it to find a starting point of her own which is in that respect and also another outside the rules observed in or set down for western painting by Goethe.

Goethe says there are reds that are aggressive, on their way to being orange, which he identifies with French painting, and ones that are passive because they contain blue, which recedes rather than advances, and which he says to be characteristic of Italian painting, but Cook's reds are neither of these. Rather, hers is a red with which one is also familiar because of its ubiquity in cosmetics, which is the other respect in which it suggests not just one but two starting points for Cook's work outside of the multiplicity of possibilities that we once sought to organize into a tradition. This red, which has proliferated into many versions of itself in Cook's work, was most precisely described to me by another young artist, Olivia Booth, who said it was a red which had hot pink behind it. Goethe, beloved of art historians and philosophers because he clung to the belief that black and white were continuous with, and indeed fundamental to, colour, perhaps didn't allow for a red which can't reasonably be described as aggressive—unless one finds having one's sensations aroused oppressive, but people who do should surely consider staying away from art galleries except when accompanied by those who can help them—and is certainly not retiring, but is instead assertive in a different way—a difference underscored by ‘assertive' obviously and immediately being clearly not quite the right word—than those offered by Goethe's (masculinist) oppositions. It's what you have instead of assertion when hot pink's behind everything.

Cook's work is made out of surfaces that are flatly but sensitively painted with intense colour. In that they are not stretched but suspended and overlap they are in their individuation and verticality active in the space like figures in a crowd, although unlike them in that the action is as independent of the floor as of the wall. But of course humans too assume an at least comparable independence, one lives in the world through the weightless mobility of the eyes rather than through one's feet, and Cook's work reminds one of this. One looks at and up as one looks from side to side and around and to some extent past. I have talked about origination in one sense but cutting across that is how the colour works in these works, or indeed in painting as such. In painting one is always seeing colour as more and less and other than what it is elsewhere in the painting, in a context where there is no first colour with which to compare ones seen as succeeding it, and this is the sense in which Cook uses red to make, and other colours to punctuate and redirect, what Gilles Deleuze (who uses red as an example) called a series in which repetition occurs without origin being an issue. Once one is responding to what it does its possible socio-anthropological origins have been further de-originated than they were before, having been detached from China and cosmetics they now find themselves properties of paintings but in that attached to a use of the idea of painting that detaches it from the wall in order to reconnect it differently to the room, and displaces or even replaces index, origin, and connotation with immediate sensation. In making the idea and experience of the provisional converge with the painted surface—by definition at once both weightless and tactile, product of eye and hand—Cook has found her own way of making painting's weightless and mobile complexity (or a practice which uses it, which comes to the same thing) engage the body's own complex relationship to visual and material difference through movements between and within discrete areas of colour—which is itself at once familiar and unfamiliar—that fold painting into the same space as that of its spectator, who will immediately realise that not the least hot thing about this work is that one can't be outside of it—because one's caught up in and shares its temporality as ones shares space with it—but is instead caught up in a play with as much as of difference and immediacy. Cook's work produces the excitement (some) bodies involuntarily and irresistibly associate with pleasure rather than the alternative and, traditionally and still generally but not here, with the colours of cosmetics rather than of art.

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The Persistence of Red (2005)

Michael Freeman

Overlapping paper banners in a range of powerful, intense reds are suspended from floor to ceiling to transform an interior into a mesmerizing and fragile space. The arrangement of these gently moving walls by artist Chris Cook is site-specific, creating a unique environment each time.

Cook draws heavily on her Chinese cultural heritage, and the colours are based on her memories of places, events, and objects from her childhood in East Asia, in particular “the smell of burning incense, the dimness of temple interiors, the scared environment filled with noises and the ever-present colour of red, forming a continuous background to ceremony and prayers, social and spiritual connections.” She takes large-scale paper monochrome banners and paints them with layers of acrylic to create a specific hue, shade, and density for each one. By overlapping them in depth and allowing the lightweight paper to float and move, she makes an architectural space that, while ephemeral, manages to close off the outside environment completely. The modulation of reds – some hotter and advancing, others cooler and receding – adds to the three-dimensional effect. As Cook writes, “The physical presence is created to overwhelm and to create an atmosphere of silence and contemplation.”

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