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Nigel Cooke, Corvus, 2022, oil and acrylic on linen, 225 × 164 cm I 88 9/16 × 64 9/16"


Nigel Cooke on Atlas with Butterfly

Published Tuesday, Nov 8, 2022

Nigel Cooke’s latest solo exhibition with Pace, titled Atlas with Butterfly and on view in London from November 23 to January 7, 2023, spotlights a new body of work engaged with travel, adventure, Greek mythology, and delicate systems that govern the natural world. Known for his evocative paintings that blend figuration and abstraction to produce distinctive, calligraphic forms, the artist draws inspiration from a wide range of sources, from his own experiences and impressions of people and places to neuroscience, zoology, and beyond.

On the occasion of Atlas with Butterfly, Cooke has penned an artist’s statement detailing his process and the varied meanings imbued in his new lyrical paintings and works on paper. Cooke’s poetic text, which follows in full below, is a guide to his layered, atmospheric compositions being exhibited in the English capital.

A book of maps, lying open, and a creature that floats across them without ever touching. Elevating some places to your attention, like Atlas the Titan holds the globe, but without weight. A butterfly glimpsed from a boat, out at sea. A white butterfly off-shore is an odd sight - a sign of land nearby at least, a peninsula you cannot see yet. It is said that the survivors of the Raft of the Medusa saw a white butterfly, just before they were rescued, from their contraption of chicken coops and cannibalism. But Gericault would never have painted the butterfly - as an image it is too heavy.

Heavy animals falling from the sky into the sea. In Miami in spring, I saw a pelican, dun-coloured, prehistoric and shabby, impacting turquoise waves. Not an odd sight on the Florida coast, but I couldn’t let go of the impression. It moved me in ways I couldn’t figure out.

I made a lot of watercolours on the beach, looking at the pelicans hitting the water, trying to capture the colour and movement like a slow camera. Finally I understood that it was the disruption of the scene by the bird that mattered, the ‘this-then-that’ nature of it, not what was containable in a single frame. Amid the screaming colours, light and heat, it wasn’t there one moment, but then it was. And at that point, there was something else there too, a new value in between: the impact of the bird had the force of truth - a brute fact, an echo of evolution, a ring of the eternal. The colours stayed pulsing in my mind.

I always start by responding to something seen, with sketches and watercolours made away from home. There is always some mysterious aspect to this process that draws me forwards to what I cannot see, and the paintings back at the studio walk me slowly towards that, away from what I know. Something invisible creeps out of the visible.

Similarly, the animal world begins at the limit of human eyesight. We are always looking somewhere, but don’t see. Trees and thickets, tangles of natural stuff in the distance - what’s in there, looking out? We are observed, but don’t see back, don’t observe in return, most of the time. And then there is an emergence, all of a sudden. A living animal breaks cover, a boundary is breached, the security of our detachment is overturned. It happens fleetingly, it’s an envoy from a place beyond sight that may have already been watching you.

One’s sight when painting is held to be the decider. But sometimes the image has other ideas, has seen you before you have seen it. We say ‘out of nowhere’ about anything that catches us unawares; a butterfly on the ocean from a stricken raft.

Predators rely on exactly the element of surprise in order to survive, including pelicans, who drop from a great height within the blind spot of the fish’s eye.

Much of painting is summoned from beyond sight. When working, things happen that you are too close to see. Step back, and things seen from a distance vanish when you move back in to work. You walk in, then out. Pictures come and go. Glimpses of figures and animals interchange; a persistent ambiguity, between human and animal worlds, echoes through deep time.

Negotiating the appearance of an image can feel like coaxing an animal out of a lair - there is something creaturely about how images emerge from the camouflage of paint. The paintings play on themes of emergence and retreat, of disguise and transformation, mis-recognition. Evolution and adaptation, specialising and failing. Gravity and weightlessness also, as Atlas hefts nothing onto his shoulder, after all. Watches something else float off.

In the end, forms are not allowed to over-crystallise - they need to blend back into an environment they have been momentarily distinct from. Collapse into waves like the pelican, maybe.

  • Essays — Nigel Cooke on Atlas with Butterfly, Nov 8, 2022