Artist Statement by Chris Cook (2020)
I am interested in the instability of colour; it's subtle shift of hues and intensity when juxtaposed with others. Cropped and repeated geometric shapes, especially triangles in various forms, are used to suggest movement as the diagonal lines lead one's eye around and outside the paintings. Part of a shape extends right to the painting edges to suggest that it might be part of something else; another picture alongside the same series. Whilst the uncompromising triangle shapes indicate tension and movement, quiet and muted colours create balance and weight, as if to anchor the shapes from floating away. Together, they create 'quiet' movement.
The Pyramid series (2019) and the Reflection series (2020), both acrylic on canvas, are in the format of a square (48" x48" and 24" x24" respectively). The square form gives solidity to the work without giving bias to whether the work is portrait or landscape.
In the Pyramid series, each square canvas is divided by a line in the middle, and two diagonal lines are further drawn from the top centre towards the bottom left and right corners of the canvas, leaving approximately 1 cm on all three pointed sides towards the edges. An isosceles triangle occupying the centre of the painting lends gravity and weight to the work, the cropped angles at the bottom of the painting contradict, and suggest its instability; as if it is being pulled away from the painting's surface.
The Pyramid series was created in July and August 2019 during an artist residency programme at TAKSU Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. At that time Hong Kong, where I am currently based, was going through some significant political changes resulting in many protests on the streets with many arrests being made. The work I produced during my stay reflected my state of mind; meditative, yet with tension, and a yearning for inner peace and simplicity.
The titles and the colour schemes for the first four Pyramid paintings were based on different times of the day. The subsequent paintings from that series are simply called Pyramid (with a number). Vermillion orange, various red and blues hues, and blueish black are the dominant colours of the work.
Although a triangle is an uncompromising shape, somehow it gives me some kind of comfort and a sense of calmness when I look at those paintings. It almost has a spiritual feel to it, as the triangular composition reminds me of those European medieval paintings of Madonna and Child. The colour blue has connotations of heavenly and celestial, which is a sacred colour often used in Western religious paintings.
Before the Pyramid series, the works created in 2018 and 2019 are based on recurrent shapes, in various forms of a triangle. These repeated triangular shapes point to each other, on top of each other, or are a mirror image of each other, to create a sense of movement and tension. Sometimes they are put together to form yet another shape, such as a diamond. I like to toy with the idea of harmony and contradiction, weight and lightness. 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. The shapes used in this body of work were distilled from earlier work created between 2012-2017. In those works, grids were used to act as a basic structure to divide space and to organise colours. Repeated shapes are sub-divided further to convey irregularities and reveal other hidden geometric schemes. Together with colour, they create order, layers, movement, vibrancy, contradiction and complexity.
The forty-five 'Amulets' paintings, done in 2019, are small works on handmade paper, each measuring 15cm x 10cm. They are like colour studies for the larger paintings. Each of them is painted on handmade paper acquired in northern Thailand. A template of a kite shape was drawn on each sheet, and the shape varied slightly with the repeated process. I called these 'Amulets' as I had the idea of creating something small and inexpensive enough to carry around, like those amulets one might buy from a Thai temple. I also had The Book of Changes (the Chinese 'I Ching') in mind; everything changes, and no two things are quite the same if even they are repeated. The kite shape used in the Amulets paintings gave me an impression of those slim Thai Buddhas displayed in Thai temples.
The latest body of work Reflection (2020) is a natural development from the Pyramid series. The shapes and palettes are now further reduced, and the colours are more sombre compared to the earlier work. Along with that work, two more series of 64 small works on paper, based on the ideas of I Ching, were created. They are based on a variant of the same shape, with repeated and juxtapositions of colours creating harmony, and yet straining in the work.
The painting process is a slow one for all of my paintings. Many layers of colours are applied until a 'humming' and a certain glow appear, blurring the harshness of a hard line and merging it into another shape. The light looks as if it is coming from within the painting.
I tend to use colours that have some connections to me. They could be specific colours from objects and places that I remember from my childhood, or colours that I have encountered during my daily life or frequent travels throughout southeast Asia in recent years. Since the beginning of the pandemic of COVID-19, I have taken up regular evening walks in the countryside where my studio is located and the waterfront near where I live, to destress and create some headspace. The colours of late afternoon and the evening as the sun retreats, behind the hills and the changing skies have found their way into my current work.
The Reflection series is relatively small small (24" x24") and is better seen as a group; each painting is like a microscopic image of something bigger, and one would only get an idea of what they might be when they are seen together. There is a sense of calmness and peace in both of the Pyramid and Reflection series, a sense that is similar to the practice of sitting meditation. In meditation, there is always sound, and different signs of movements (the pumping of the heart, the circulation of blood and oxygen and the electrical charges that run through the body, that one can only feel rather than see) accompanying the stillness. Though the overall painting surface is smooth, the geometric shapes seem precise; but the work is not about perfection. If one spends time to look at them, one may feel the pulsation in the work.
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
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.
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.”