Nigel Cooke. Photo by Damian Griffiths


‘The Complexity of Life Is Inspiration’

Nigel Cooke on Painting, Mystery, and Myth

Published Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Nigel Cooke—who is known for his evocative, atmospheric paintings that unite figurative forms and abstract elements in layered compositions—is presenting a solo exhibition of new large-scale paintings at Pace’s 540 West 25th Street gallery in New York from May 12 to July 1. Borrowing its title from paleontologist Loren Eiseley’s 1960 essay describing the evolution of mythic to scientific thinking in the field of natural history, Cooke’s show features horizontally oriented canvases that transport viewers into worlds of intense colors and lyrical forms.
To mark the opening of his exhibition in New York, the gallery spoke with the artist about his painting process and the inspirations for his latest works. The following interview with Cooke has been edited and condensed.
How the World Became Natural

Nigel Cooke, How the World Became Natural, 2023, oil and acrylic on linen, 212 cm × 288.5 cm (83-7/16" × 9' 5-9/16") © Nigel Cooke, Photo by Robert Glowacki

Can you discuss “How the World Became Natural,” the essay for which your exhibition is named—what was compelling about that text?

Before the scientific age, the origins of our world’s mountains, glaciers, and canyons could only be considered at the scale of the human lifespan. Deep time—geological units of eons and epochs—was yet to be understood. Human beings turned instead to relatable dramatic events, versions of their own lives in essence, to explain the mysteries of the Earth’s formation. Deserts, ravines, abysses, and summits were forged in the fallout of turbulent passions of deities and gods, wrought in sudden moments of pique or vengeance against us, rather than over millions of years of slow, inexorable transformation. Until we started noticing the naturally formed anomalies around us, like seashells embedded thousands of feet above sea level, our imaginations sheltered in myth to explain the diverse topographies of our environment.

This is the core narrative of “How the World Became Natural,” an essay published in 1960 by paleontologist Loren Eiseley, as part of the collection The Firmament of Time. In Eiseley’s view, the process of becoming “natural” is the evolution from mythic to scientific modes of thought, from conceptions of nature as an unknowable, supernatural entity to understandings based on empirical facts.

Eiseley’s essay holds an ongoing fascination for me, not least in its poetic phrasing and melancholy tone of wonder, both of which are characteristic of his other writings. His awe for the vastness of earth time in comparison to the human lifespan presents, for me, a simultaneously bleak and hopeful proposition.

How do the ideas from Eiseley’s essay relate to your painting process?

Whereas his essay presents an explanation of how natural history came to be, I see painting as this process in reverse—more like the journey out of what is known and coherent towards a form of personal mythic thought, rather than away from it. This process is marked by the mystery and fragmentation of lived experiences, offering a new space of possibility for ideas. Making paintings allows me to move the known out of the way and connect disparate tracks of thought that lead to no utile conclusion, but somehow make a composition possible.


Nigel Cooke, Ark, 2023, oil and acrylic on linen, 220 cm × 299 cm (86-5/8" × 9' 9-11/16") © Nigel Cooke, Photo by Robert Glowacki

Painting is a mythic process for me because I am focusing on the mysterious contents of my own mind, drawing connections between various preoccupations that don’t sit easily together in the outside world. One’s own interpretations and perceptions of the world—written over with idiosyncratic anecdotal data—are, to me, a kind of nature. The world becomes natural in the personal, private spaces of the studio and one’s own head.

We’re constantly absorbing the events and discourses around us, but I like to let my subjectivities blend with adjoining thoughts, refract over time, and become obscure to me in other ways. For me, the painting process is a subject in its own right—a cocktail of internal narratives that makes any given work possible. I arrive at the canvas with only my feelings and intuitions. The joy of making lies in the adventure of learning about what is really on one’s mind to create a flow between our inner lives and the world at large—that’s a kind of subject in itself.

Can we talk more about that flow of ideas—how do you balance enactments of movement with that meditative, introspective quality of your work?

While my paintings celebrate privacy and interiority, they also imply that flows of thought and information can have a positive effect on our understanding of our place in the environment. This is where dynamic movement and energy come into play. My compositions centralize fluidity as the truth in our relationships with one another and with the natural world. The world becoming natural, for me, means dissolving our faith in icons, monads, and snapshots, positing continuum as a spiritual and ethical fact.

An emphasis on line in my work allows for a freedom of definition, even as it collapses into the modelling of forms and the rendering of atmospheric conditions here and there. Falling to pieces then rallying, striving to connect but breaking down—we see these moments in our friendships and love affairs, in a weed in the cracks of the sidewalk, in the forest, in the makeup of bacteria. Dynamics of line are the superorganic meshwork that lets us relate to what is outside ourselves. All this—along with the evolution and growth of radiant color, which intensifies like sound in my paintings—is an expression of hope.

Winter Oracle

Nigel Cooke, Winter Oracle, 2023, oil and acrylic on linen, 182 cm × 247 cm (71-5/8" × 8' 1-1/4") © Nigel Cooke, Photo by Robert Glowacki

What are some of the subjects that have influenced or inspired your paintings, and how do you synthesize those varied allusions in a single composition?

To describe all the thoughts and allusions in my new paintings is not really practical. I use ideas about the natural environment, mythology, literature, and the history of painting freely in my process. Freedom from forms and figures bounded by both space and time enables me to discuss people, places, animals, art, and memories all at once, using gesture and suggestion rather than description. There is no concrete position to take, no freezing time. The complexity of life is inspiration. It is freedom from concrete positions and fixity that elevates art for me, keeping it inclusive, democratic, and full of possibility.

I believe the value of looking at painting is the experience of mystery. For me, deepening that sense of mystery is the purpose of painting.

  • Essays — ‘The Complexity of Life Is Inspiration’: Nigel Cooke on Painting, Mystery, and Myth, May 9, 2023