Video

Studio Visit with Nigel Cooke

Coinciding with his online exhibition, Midnights, Pace Gallery artist Nigel Cooke and curator Mark Beasley took viewers on a digital tour through Cooke's studio outside Canterbury, Kent, offering a glimpse into his practice, process, and life as an artist for whom self-isolation yields creative expression.

Mark Beasley (MB): I think we've gone live, Nigel. I just saw a green light. It looks like that! Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Mark Beasley, a Curatorial Director at Pace Gallery here in New York. Today, or this afternoon, we're visiting Nigel Cooke live and in his studio in Canterbury, Kent.

Nigel Cooke (NC): Hello.

MB: Hi there in the UK. We're here to discuss, in the main, a series of paintings that Nigel produced during our time of isolation, our apartness, so to speak. A series of six new paintings that were produced after midnight and we will get to talking about those. Nigel, first I wanted to say a quick thank you. I believe the first sale of the first paintings went to the medical workers and hospital staff and the NHS there in Britain. I wanted to thank you for that as a fellow Brit and hearing news from across the pond, as I think they used to say in the 1920s. Yes, thank you. We can share thoughts on the paintings, thoughts on what it is to be creative now, what it is to be and have space and time to think, and what does that mean? What does that mean in the now? So, I want to hand it over to Nigel, who I believe is sat in front of a recent painting. Nigel had his recent show with us in Chelsea here in New York, a series of paintings, in January, which were a marked shift from his earlier more figurative work, I would say. So maybe we could talk about that a little bit, Nigel. Hello again and thanks. Thanks for this.

NC: Hello. Hello, everyone. It’s a big subject, really. I kind of think that any visit to the studio has got that in the background. Anyone that knows my work from the past will know that it's been through a lot of permutations. Behind me, what you see is a new painting recently finished of the new sort of language that I’ve developed, I suppose. That was sort of a part of the, well, the central part of my New York show in January, and I kind of arrived at it by some experiences when I spent a residency in New York last spring. This time last year, I was in the city for a while working at a print studio. It was one of those things where I was lucky to be able to work at night in the studio. And because you're away from home I found that that threw a spotlight on what I was doing. I found that everything that I was dissatisfied with was amplified and it was harder and harder to sort of hang on to any of the sort of reassuring solutions that I'd had in my work up to that point. That was really what kicked it off, but then what I was able to do is bring it back and develop it, which is sort of where the difference is. By sort of going away, it allowed me to disconnect myself from what I was doing and, in a sense, there’s a sort of parallel with this year, with a lockdown, where it's the sort of opposite of that. I've sort of disconnected from something I wanted to retain and cherish. Last year, I was sort of looking to drop stuff, and this year I’m looking to keep stuff. I suppose that's the ultimate difference. But if I move around a bit, I can show you this painting here. It's, essentially, like a linear composition. I've really tried to look at my work over the last twenty, twenty-five years and see what is the consistent vocabulary of it that could sustain the work ongoing and in a way, all of it sort of focuses on line, in a sense. Line is something which divides, but also which bounds something together. Something which describes space, but also which is the edge of a body, the edge of an object. That sort of duality, I think, is the prime sort of connection between everything I've ever done. Everything has been about this plus that, or this plus that equals something else. It is sort of all about there being these multiple, dual ways of looking at something. I've tried to reduce that down just to the sort of linear language. That’s it in the most simple terms. I’ll sort of wander around a bit. This is the studio. As it is now, this is the first room. I've got this kind of room where I can kind of look at paintings, put them in isolation themselves a little bit, and just sort of live with them and see what's...

MB: So, you're not painting from that room. But this room we’re about to come into is your main room.

NC: Yes. So, this is the studio, the main part. And you can see I'm in the countryside.

MB: English countryside. I miss it.

NC: Can you see that?

MB: Yeah.

NC: And along here are the Midnights works.

MB: And these were produced maybe, as we were talking about, maybe eight weeks ago? Or you started them eight weeks ago?

NC: Yeah. They were started early on in the lockdown. Let me plug this in here. Yeah, like I was saying. When I was doing a show in New York, I realized I’d reached this new place, like I'd reached the kind of distillation of the language and I was desperate to retain that and build on it, but then the lockdown, in a way, forced this interruption. And like a lot of people—I talked to a lot of artists and most people found it pretty hard to carry on working for one reason or another. It's almost like there was this kind of immovable block, like a kind of body of thought lodged in your brain all the time. You didn't know what was going on. You didn't know where everyone was. There are also practical things to attend to. I think everyone relates to that. Lots of new things to adjust to, and the idea of making a work seemed sort of inappropriate, but also like a relic of some other period when there was a freedom, a sort of freedom of movement, but also of thinking. So, I found that I had to kind of find a different door in a way, a different doorway and back into the work. I sort of tried not to think too much about what we said earlier about pressure. I didn't want to be a sort of productive artist, regardless. I felt there was something gauche about that. I wanted to somehow reflect on it, but not make plague art either. So, what is it? What does it mean to do this now? One of the biggest changes really was the idea that everyone is stuck in their houses as well. Me being in here every day is my normal state and I've sort of tried to engineer this state in the past however many decades. I was the kid at art school with the curtain up. I always need to be cut off because I just...when I'm working, that's it. There isn't anything else.

MB: Yeah.

NC: I'm not a social artist. I don't really like people popping in, apart from the about 200, 300 people now, that’s great. That’s slightly different! But I just wanted to isolate. So being out here in the country, away from London, away from a big arts center was always my sort of ideal state. I find it really, really helpful to concentrate. But when everyone is doing that, then you feel like...it’s hard to describe. It's a bit like everyone is then an artist. I mean, people were sort of being creative, sharing like ten memes a day. Communication went through the roof. The daytime was different. Everyone was figuring things out, not unlike artists do every day. I kind of wanted some of that separateness back, just to remember what it was I was doing.

MB: And we can get to that a little bit. I get it. I mean, you hear of, in terms of musicians, how they leave the city. I lived in the UK, not that far from Wales, which was known for all those ‘70s rock bands from Led Zeppelin through Sabbath, whomever. They all moved to the country to make their classic albums. I think those ‘90s Manchester bands did as well, which we could probably get to as you’re from Manchester. But I was thinking about this as everybody is in lockdown and we're all kind of humming a similar tune, how you shifted that a little bit, how you made the isolation strange again. One of the key things for you was the time at which you painted. The series is called Midnights. When we talked about, you said after twilight, when the sun sets, when there's this kind of silence, and often writers talk about that...when I’ve written or when I wrote my PhD, I did it at midnight because it was just me, my thoughts, and I was answerable to myself almost, I can make all the rules. And you've done that with this series. How did you arrive at that idea? I know, like me, you have children. And that in lockdown adds another kind of hum, another kind of tension to escape or almost block out or live with or let into the work. But how did you arrive at that moment and realization that, hey, when sun sets is when this mind starts up again?

NC: Well, it's funny because with the children, part of the reason of leaving London is to sort of balance everything better, so they've always been a part of the studio life anyway. Things like that weren't any different. I mean, I'm around the house with them a lot more. They have their own issues that need resolving, the projects and stuff they want to get done. They don’t have teachers, so they come to you all the time with new things you've got to try and figure out.

MB: I know that one. Yeah.

NC: I also I didn't want to, initially it was a case of...I could just go to the studio, leave everyone to it. But that's again, it’s sort of ridiculous. Everyone was uncertain, and you didn't know how they were going to respond, what they're going to be depressed about, freaked out about, whatever it would be. I just wanted to be around and available. So that was that, I thought, I'm not just vanishing and just carrying on as normal. And then I sort of thought about that time when you're away, like when I do shows overseas and you're in a different time zone. It's like this moment when you check out of base and then there's just this night or this other time when you're kind of in invented time.

MB: Yeah.

NC: And I've always been fascinated by that moment. When you're on a long flight and you're above the clouds but it's dark, there's always this feeling of possibility in that for me. I think that's what drew me to sort of getting down here when everyone was in bed. You check out of everything. Everyone's fine. Things are going to be okay until the next day and then you come down and try and weave your way back into making it work. I think that was essentially what it was for me. It was literally like, where was I? What was I was thinking about? Trying to find the thread again. Originally, it was a case of, I'll make some black works. I’ll make some black, not the bright color sort of symphony style stuff that I was doing before, but like really monochromatic and sort of straight. But with painting, I always find that those short cuts or those very conscious choices of making a move, as it were, always fail because that's not what painting's about. It isn't a strategy. It's something I find that wells up from another part of your head. It's a sort of collection of unconscious drives that then become a possibility. That’s all it is, I think. I don't think it's anything to do with ideas at all. I mean, a little bit. I've I found that the further I get away from ideas, the better. And when I sort of did the black images, they were just that, they were just an idea. There was nothing alive about them. They were just a sort of dead negative. And, in a way, I thought actually it's the darkness that matters. But darkness is not just blacks. It's not charcoals or out of the tube Mars black. It's a complex state and light emerges. Also, with my work, it's always about making it an interior thing. It's not really about looking. I mean, none of it has ever been about looking. It's always about you can't look without there also being thought. You can't be a camera. You know, you're actually always, what is it, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in science where the observer always affects the outcome. You're always a kind of part of the outcome of any assessment. I've always felt that really strongly, that it's all about a kind of...this this line between you and the world and you're affecting it and it's this two-way thing. So, my thing has that complexity where the image is right on the line between the outside world and the interior world and by interior, I mean in your head.

MB: Yeah. So, there’s a term you've used, as I was reading about the series and your shift from narrative motifs. There's a term used that I really like which was employing energetic systems.

NC: Yeah.

MB: Some kind of process through the image and maybe tripping yourself up a little bit or there being something at stake with each of the images. I don't know if I’m allowed to say this, that when we’ve talked before it wasn't just these six series of paintings. There were other paintings that didn't work.

NC: Yeah.

MB: Are we allowed to talk about that? But it seems like, of course. Of course it’s that, there's an image that works and as that vibration continues to move on the page or on canvas and has an energy and that's a kind of an applied systemic attempt to do what paint does incredibly well in terms of image making. There's this kind of...when I've lived with paintings and I've been kindly gifted a few from friends and artists, as they’ve sat on the wall, they're changing continually. If they're good, if they do what you want from paint.

NC: That's the thing I mean, in a way, the energetics thing. I mean, I'll stand over here with some sort of larger complete ones. The energetics thing really, for me, is about saying when you paint something, if you're looking at something, let's say you're painting a figure, then you've got to make choices about how fast the paint goes on. How thick it is, how mottled it is. What are the marks within it? What's it made of, what color is it? All these things that sit in the paint, and then the energetics are the touch. Like, how does that paint then get onto the surface? Well, for me, that bit where you’re putting that into the material onto the surface, that is the energetics. That's you. That's the bit. That's the subject. Because really, my idea would be then, you've got to do that when you're painting a realistic image of a person, but let's say you just take the person out and you carry on anyway. What happens if it's just that, if it's just that energy, and that descriptive, energetic drive, but it's a hybrid beast that you're thinking about. It's about a place. It's about person. It's about a myth. It's about a story. It's about a color. That's more real for me. That's more about what I feel like. Rather than staring at something and saying, how do I capture it. I'm sort of more interested in putting across that network of energy, which is the core DNA of any descriptive act in painting for me. I've found over the years increasingly let down by the image or cluttered or held back by the image. The image is the thing which is sort of foiling it and making it this sort of communicative meme. You know, it's like it’s saying, get it in some way or you know what this is or remember this or have you seen this or can you reference that, and all of that chatter I found was really childish somehow. I just felt it was something I wanted to break away from. Although that was always my route into painting, I felt like I'd reached a point in life somehow, whatever that means, where that was just racket in the background. I think often, as I talk about that stay in New York last year, often for me there’s these times when your life and your work don't talk, you're almost like a sort of, you're at odds and you're not a whole thing. I kind of got sick of that feeling, and I wanted to line them up, but the problem being that you reach a point where habits start to get solidified and you've got to work really hard to break stuff. That's what 2019 was for me, a way of saying I’m not doing anything until all this goes away.

MB: How does that process work? You've described it as chatter. But maybe, that kind of transition from last year to here, it’s more than chatter. As I'm looking at the paintings, as these thoughts or these images meet you in the act of painting, the painting behind you, I can see an eyelash in there. I can see a shoulder blade. There’s this tumble of images. There is this human animal connection that you can see in the Midnights series as well, and certainly the paintings at the gallery in January. How do you deal with each of those thoughts in that kind of flow state? Do you accept it? Do you live with it? And that moves you into the next move, the next moment? Is there a kind of peace within it or is it a continual push and pull with the painting?

NC: It's sort of both. But I think very clearly it's allowing me to equalize those things and say

there are some rules I put down straight away with these because of that complexity. Usually there's a color base and size which is consistent. I'll say, this is a blue scale, red scale painting. And make those decisions early on so that it doesn't become...there's not too many plates spinning. In a way, with the image, if it's all about the line, the way it sort of modulates between those references, not the references, but those connections, it is a lot. And it needs to breathe in its own way. It's about allowing those changes of mind, those changes of focus, equal voice, because in a sense, when you're making a more pictorial image, there’s always a question of service and duty and that's how I started to see it. What are you delivering? Who is this for? What are you handing over? Are you handing over the idea that this is a figure in a room or whatever, and how much of that are you giving to the viewer and how much of that are you dealing with in terms of authority or duty or service to that idea? And I just didn't want that job. I just thought it was irrelevant. I just had no interest in servicing a kind of sense of consistency which I didn't believe in. But I also want the thing to be coherent and powerful. The idea of being ambiguous without being vague. Being open without being wishy-washy and sort of indeterminate, and that’s the challenge for me. Within that, it allows me to move between those different registers without that being really an inherent contradiction, because for me, the whole point is eyes and leaves and animal forms and all the rest of it are all part of the same thing. Connectivity between all that stuff is what nature is. I think the separateness is, one, what's got us into a lot of trouble environmentally, but it's also the root of academic art, and I think that freedom for me was...The other thing as well is that I suppose it almost feels like a kind of liberal moment. It's this and it’s that. It moves and then I change my mind. It's a grid, it's a sort of grid of options and it allows the person who's looking at it the capacity to be part of that. You're not an authority, you're just presenting an experience in a way. There's a certain performative aspect to making them, which I'm sort of saddled with at the end. You know, there’s things which are awkward, or more vulnerable, and then bits which are more skillful or something. I like that combination because it means that the person dealing with it, who's looking, is saying...following you a bit with that. It's not a kind of wall of perfection, which I've done that before. And I sort of do more continuing with it.

MB: Yeah. I'm very aware of that from former paintings where the narrative is more pronounced and the move from that...I'm going to use the word frightening. It must be to a certain extent, to let go of those motifs that you understand, that are more biopic in that sense, they relate to your experience more immediately, where these paintings there's many things you can bring to them. They look like a neural network. They look in an odd way, from here, as we see it in the screen, there is a kind of digital fluxing image space that you've created, yet with this very analog media that kind of moves. Maybe we could talk a little bit about, sorry to spin you around, and get to the Midnights series and what it means to have a series of works, these six images that sit compositionally together. And we talked a little bit about music in the past, but they do have this score feeling to them. The rhythm as they sit next to each other as well as their own internal space within the rectangle. How do they work? What's the process of one image to the next? Were they made in the series as we see them, are the others on the wall as you’re painting the next image? What's that connection? What's the handoff, I guess, between each of the images?

NC: Well, in a way, that's another thing that's quite different when I sort of did this stuff during the lockdown. They're sort of done one after the other, but they sort of cross over so that the second one will start halfway through the first and then crossover like that sort of handover to each other. And I really wanted to do a sort of variation on a theme, like create a sort of cycle of the same thing which is sort of adjusting in ways which I'm not really designing. Even when you try to do the same thing again, it will be different. I find that was extremely liberating, the idea that you could just even trying to repeat it, something sort of bleeds in and changes it. And that localizing of it down, working at night after dark when it's peaceful and the light is very different and focusing on blue which then migrates toward black the clearer you get with the work. It's giving yourself a kind of limit that you can trust and take for granted for a short time. It gives you a little enclosure to say I can operate within these parameters. But the musical thing is very key because in a sense, that's what the energetics thing is about. It's about that rhythm between sort of presence and absence, about there being kind of pockets of nothing and then sort of compressions and clusters of activity and visual noise. In a way, all the work is exploring that interdependency and creating something rhythmic and living. It has a kind of an internal sense of nature and internal sense of energy, which you can connect with looking at a mountain or listening to music is something kind of bounds it all together.

MB: It is the space within it, almost architecture. Each of them have this...You know, I am interested in performance and how the body moves and that's something that I’ve...What is it to be a performer? And the first thing I saw from your paintings in New York in January was this figure almost that was caught within it. These kind of shoulder blades we could see here, we could imagine them as that. And then this tumble, this neural network again of like this thinking space. And of course, I as the audience, I'm applying my version of the composition, my narrative into it. It's interesting, what you said about that kind of completion of the work with the audience, that the audience is in there as well. It really reminded me in this moment. I've never been around my kids so much, but I realized that the way they view the world is completed by the parent figure as well. The way I describe something is part of a completion. So, for me, there are these figures within this thing which immediately feels abstract. But of course, you're riding that line. Of course, it's there. We talked about these paintings before and the teeth in it. There's a beachscape, there's a horizon line. There's this figure. I wondered how much...or what the feeling was when you allowed that to happen.

NC: Yeah. I mean, the thing is. When it came to sort of boiling things down to this. I was very keen for there to be motifs which would float up and become sort of obsessions, like things which I'll consistently return to throughout my whole career. There is an idea of a kind of waterfront or an island that I keep coming back to, maybe it’s because the studio here is two miles from the sea. I mean, that's a big part of it, I think. You get to the edge of the country and you've got the sense of when elements cross over. The stone becomes water becomes air. It's all the elements sort of mixing together. You're at the edge of the earth and there's another element which holds you back which draws you in and you can cross it into something else and cross it to an imaginative place, whether it's to make a show somewhere or go on holiday. You've got this elsewhere always sort of being mentioned by the shore. I kind of felt like that was something like a kind of armature within these. There is this sort of, that horizon, is almost like the ground zero of what the thing is about the activity and then within that, almost like a figure on a trapeze, all the other decisions are sort of hanging off of that. I sort of wanted the line, which is an exploratory one. Basically, what I do is the way I make all the work is I just go to the image with nothing. There's no photograph. There's no projection. There's no drawing. There's nothing. Just me and the brush. The brush is always the same. I work with two different brushes. I've got like twenty of each, but it's two types. That's with works on paper and paintings, and that's part of this restriction I put on it. To go with nothing, just two brushes and then you're going to make the image with that. That's the language. Your energy, what’s in your head, those two things, and that surface. So, when the thing is being discovered, as it were, like what is this of or what is happening, a lot of these lines which are sort of really faint and they’re much bluer. I've talked about that on the online film. These sorts of lines are very, very light. And then what they are doing is they're sort of feeling around for the image and they’re trying to work out what is this, like making intersections and stuff which may suggest something. They’re gradually accumulating density and color toward the black and then they're closing down the options and the possibilities. But what's making the image is the discovery of the image. So, it's a completely insular feedback loop between not knowing what I'm doing and ending up with something. Somehow in between the bit that I know, whatever that is, is sort of stepping in and helping, but it's like two ends of not knowing. And in the middle is a sort of freedom, there's just a kind of programmed knowledge about form which will connect to painting school, which will connect to art college, and connect to early painting. Everything that’s in there is all sort of programmed into your hand in a way. That's the thing that guides it, and that's the thing that creates repetition, but also invention as well. But by making these things in this sort of musical way, it gradually reduces it down to something which, you feel a sense of rightness. And then that sense of rightness, I'm fascinated by that because what is that? Is that the same sense of rightness you feel when you're looking at the sea? Or a mountain or a tree? Is it the way your brain is organized so that you see the spaces and the lines like fractal...what is it, fractal coefficients or something about space and line? Is that it? That's what I'm interested in that point and making that point, the image and saying you live with it. You live with it each time. And that is what it is. Providing that, it seems to work. And that's why there's as much waste as there is success. If they're wrong, they're wrong, if they don't survive as they tend to just be...

I often have to live with them for a while, too, to figure that out. But they don't get corrected. And particularly these works on paper, there's only one direction because of the paper. It's cotton paper, which you can't erase. You can't paint with any liquid. It's all dry. There's no going back. It can only go in one direction, forward toward the dark from the light and that irreversibility, I think was a big part of it, too. It’s what drew me back to the work. Generally, it was what made it seem possible against work and to work around this sort of mental mass of coronavirus lockdown and family and all of all, the little practical problems around that. And just actually say that there's something universal about this language. There is something actually redemptive for me about it and kind of something I can get solace from and also build a future through.

MB: Can we speak a little bit...I'm reminded, as you're talking about this particular series that actually does a number of reversals or switches within the series from these very brightly colored canvases. This, as I understand it, starts with a midnight blue and then you build back, or you push back, and it becomes black in terms of the kind of monochromatic nature of it. It seems particularly with that one behind you, there is a suggestion of the landscape or horizon line with this eyeball. And I'm just thinking, we've not talked about this before, but it just struck me that Canterbury and Kent, I first knew of Canterbury and Kent in terms of music and composition and a particular grouping of artists. The Canterbury scene, Robert Wyatt, Soft Machine. I don't want to get too obscure for anybody that's out there, but it was really this kind of...they talked about the landscape of that part of the world, that part of the UK, really kind of pushing them or forcing them to kind of, within the music, attempt to demonstrate an innerscape, so to speak. I just wondered about the location of Canterbury in Kent, that other kind of isolation, the move from London, how that kind of bled in a little bit. I understand you run as well. I've started doing it too, very badly. I do. I listen to music and the images that flash in front of me and what kind of happens, that different kind of active imagination. That's a lot of a non-question in there, but I just wondered if literally your environment, your move from the house to the studio, Canterbury itself, the move from London. Do you feel more globally connected?

NC: Yeah. I mean, I'm trying to draw universals out of wherever I happen to be. It's not this region, but there's certainly things I see regularly that set off sort of conversations. What I see out the windows here, the foliage and the tangles of stuff, often that gets in. There is a kind of awkward, interrupting foliage you get. Certain lines that kind of cut in that kind of break the symmetry or break the harmony. Sometimes what I'm interested in is the flowing, lyrical, linear sort of bodily parts and then the kind of cracks, disturbing, tangled kind of marks that would suggest plant life and a more kind of chaotic growth. So, there is a way of actually breaking the...I like to play the lyricism and the awkwardness of each other. And in a way, the lyricism tends to derive from the body and hair and limbs and male and female, they’re neither really, they have sort of both body part types are sort of mixed in there. But also, like you said earlier, the elements of x-ray, like teeth from the side, jawbone, sinew, you know, there's all sorts of an anatomical kind of junctions and things which happen. Then the more destroyed and chaotic and natural forms I see out and about, like getting to the studio as you say, like running through the landscape or whatever it is, that gets in too because there is something like in music when often there needs to be that sort of off-note or that sort of disturbing sound that breaks the sort of clarity of it all. I'd like that to be in in the images, too. I'd like there to be something which is disruptive and awkward, because I think that's what I respond to the most, is when there's a sort of a collision and some sort of angle going on, some sort of fight maybe between like an implosion, and then something flowing and graceful and easy. In a way, the landscape often sort of suggests, like there's an orchard I run through sometimes, which the trees are in a ridiculous state and the drooping of them always, I carry that in here. I've seen it emerge in the images, not through drawing it or photographing it, but just somehow seeing it every day. It's the same with colors, often color combinations. For instance, I have a couple of things which are in progress, like here, the color combinations in these. This is very early on and you can see it's made in the same way. Like you said, with the works on paper, the Midnights, they start with a high color at least, with the black as the thing gets resolved. With these, you can see the higher color, it will get higher than that and we'll keep it sort of exaggerated. But some of these color relationships have been seen out and about early in the morning, late at night, running around, trying to exercise, whatever it is.

MB: Where are you at with this particular painting? Are we week one? Day one? Week two with this one?

NC: Yeah. This is like a couple of days in, really.

MB: A couple of days in. Okay.

NC: What I've learned to do is sort of like less. I try to work less and think about it more. Sort of spend more time just sort of thinking about why it's not good enough just to leave it. What's not all right about just that? And try and take away any of the demands for a polish or something final and just try and live with the uncertainty, because I find that they'll tell you when it's done. They’ll tell you when the time's right. Because like I said earlier, you're tuning into something you’re not really in charge of.

MB: I liked how you once described it, that the painting almost fires you. It lets you go. You’re done. I like it. It must be quite a relief.

NC: Yeah. When you're done, you're sort of sacked. It's like you can't make a move. You can't do anything. You're no longer required. I kind of like that time but it’s something you've got to be aware of. I think early on in my career or whatever, it was all about mastering it in a way, like knowing why everything. And I think it's moved entirely to the other side. The thing I know is the least interesting thing. The thing I don't is the thing that draws me forward. It's also the thing that will sort of fire me from the job in the end. For me, it means the painting's got some sort of life of its own. It's got something bigger than me. And that's all you can really hope for, isn't it? I'm looking for something which is a sort of a composite of all of that stuff, part of your whole, all your experiences, and talents, and failures, and lack of ability, and all the rest just becoming one, unbroken gesture. One thing which stands for itself.

MB: I had one last question, which I'll get to and then I wanted to try this new newfound thing, the Q&A. There's a series of questions that are being asked, some crossover with some of the things we've discussed. But I had one last question before we get to those and it was about this other kind of chatter or this other kind of information around art history in terms of the paintings. We've talked about de Kooning, Clyfford Still, some kind of British painting, Chinese silk painting, Spanish painters. Where in that chatter or an informing in terms of image making does that sit or is that something else that you try and push out?

NC: I think I would say that in a way, nowadays, I'm sort of trying to wear the influence a bit lighter. I think it's one of those things where you kind of...it's not you don't so grow out of it, but you kind of move away from them. I do. Anyway, I'm not someone who's always dipping into history books really anymore. At the same time, I try to boil down what I care about into things which have always been there. Francis Bacon was my first sort of lightning bolt moment with painting. I was sixteen. I can remember the moment of opening the book now, like it was yesterday, in the library like what the hell is this? I don't know. I wasn't even doing art school at the time. It was just a case of what the hell was that. I just wanted to walk toward it, and I've been walking toward it for thirty years. From that, I think there was just something magical for me about how the painting sits up on the image. About the bit where the work sort of recedes and then becomes something congealed. I think there's just something universally fantastic about that in terms of what it feels like to be alive or what it means to be a person, a thinking subject or not being able to turn back the clock. There's just something that captured my imagination about that. And I think that's something that I've really tried to wear at the center of these works. It’s something that I wanted to be more important than the image really. In the past the image has taken over all of that. In a way, although I diminished the references of the influences, I've sort of boiled them down as well. I've sort of made them one thing, which I think they are all consistent and which is somehow some relationship between the recessional properties of materials and their movement, their emergence from that into something bodily that sits up on the image. It’s in Velázquez. It’s in El Greco. It's in Francis Bacon. It’s in Clyfford Still. Those are things that I've just tried to connect and say that's always been sort of core thing for me that is now very central in these too.

MB: You know, there's something about...One of the paintings reminded me of the Goya. Where there’s that space that I believe is painted in gold, and then there's just this little dog with its head above the paint, trying to survive the image somehow, and it really reminded me this kind of tumble of paint above the bare canvas and there’s something in it. I started as a painter studying with Peter Doig many, many years ago. Something about the flow space of producing painting, the only thing I’ve experienced like it is making music. I think it is a very special and rare space. I am going to attempt to do justice to a number of questions, having read them for the first time now. Oh, I can see you now, Nigel. There are my glasses. We have a question here from Jane, and we've gotten to it a little bit but she's asking if there's any particular music or particularly literature you're turning to that's been an inspiration to your creative process or just another kind of dwelling space that's allowed you to think.

NC: Yeah. I think music has gradually become more minimal. I kind of like a classical feel these days with no words. I find the words almost always in songs awkward. I just like the noise and often it's just more reductive. The closer it sounds to a fridge sometimes the better, just above silence is fine. There's a few people who make stuff like that that I like a lot. Literature, I suppose, it's quite weird because during lockdown, I think people think, oh, now I'm going to read Proust end to end or something like that.

MB: The number of people I've seen posting now that, “I finally finished War and Peace,” I’m like really? I’m reading graphic novels to get through this. But yeah, to each their own. I’m sorry.

NC: No, no, it's good. I mean, it's true. It is sort of like a cliché lockdown that we’re going to tackle these. I tried that stuff when I was younger, and I've come back to a few things. I think one of the things which I found really rich is Virginia Woolf, again. A kind of modernist literature where this is a kind of, the author's perspective is always somewhere different. And that's because of the form of the book, isn't it? The form of the book is allowing this movement of the mobile kind of eye within the scene, creating a sort of flow without boundaries. I think that’s what I’ve tried to make in my work. I don't really read things to fuel the work on purpose, but I draw things away from it anyway. I've mentioned in the film online line about The Odyssey, which I think I read...must have been fifteen, twenty years ago as well, but it was more poignant now because, again, because of transformation, like in a way, what's so great about that book is that the hero was a complicated figure. Not like this sort of post-war hero that’s spotless. They’re complicated and flawed and stupid, sometimes being a hero is about being as sort of varied as possible, really, rather than as a saint. I kind of like that. I think in some ways you talk about kids and stuff and the idea of supporting other people. There often is this feeling that you do have to know all the answers and I think the books like that, where the hero is literally sometimes ridiculous, I find myself cheering.

MB: I just like reading Don Quixote. I love it. The fabrications, the fact like self-imaging, self-realization, all this stuff, the kind of observative, a strong sense of self. I mean, one man in particular seems to typify Don Quixote right now. We're all bipartisan. No, we're not bipartisan. Let me try and pull something from these very well-crafted questions that I want to do justice to. Jason Wright asks, the works that didn't make the cut—we have just ten minutes left I believe in our Zoom call—maybe we'll try and get to a few of these. The work that didn't make the cut, what was it about them that didn't work? Their appearance or inability to fit with your other work or something more fundamental? I know this is a tough question to ask to any image maker, of any image maker.

NC: Yeah, I'll try to answer them quickly because a lot of them were asked. I think that it's almost a case of a sense of it being overdone. Like, if there is a point of which...I used to really think about this idea of why you stop as being just up to you. But now I realize I kind of got that wrong. It's about knowing that there's a point where the image still has a lightness. There's something about...It's almost like an equation between light and dark or heavy and thin or presence and absence. There's something about balance that if I just stop just a little bit before I think I should, and then live with it for a bit, I tend to think it holds a balance, but if I go a little step further, often just congeals. It is too much. There's too much paint, there’s too much something. I guess it's something that you just get practice in feeling out and you just sense it. You have to give yourself time. I think, like a lot of things with painting, a lot of it's getting used to your own traits and then living with your own weaknesses and learning to think around that.

MB: That makes sense. I was wondering, earlier we talked about it, and it was a big discussion, it was going to be something. But, art in the time of Covid, what that meant. There are many calls...or this idea of this moment of productivity. I have many friends who are musicians who are like, yeah, when I used to come off tour and I’d been on tour for three months I'd be like, I'll fix that studio space, or I'll buy that new settee or sofa I was going to buy or do whatever. Instead, this space is not immediately a space of productivity or creativity because we're all dealing with our different things and there’s a kind of privilege to that notion. There's a question from Ray Leone and they're asking, was there a minute where you lost focus or lost your muse or motivation to paint? We've talked a little bit about it, and you created a new instance in which you could find that edge again for yourself. Yeah, maybe explain, this is a tough question but that landscape of those ten weeks?

NC: Where I lost focus in this time or ever?

MB: In this time, or maybe ever. Because I think there are times that, you know, I'm closer in my writing and one week I’m on fire. This is the best thing I've ever done. In the next week, I know nothing. I can't write. You know, maybe that's a continual process for an artist.

NC: I did find that early on with this. I found that I was getting exhausted, a lot of emotional exhaustion. It was the first time where it became very real to me, the amount of emotional energy you need to paint. Or I do. There’s certain heavy lifting to it, which I've sort of taken for granted, but once we were into this is. At the beginning, it was like, I'd think of things and I'd want to be here, but I couldn't sort of connect it with any action. I mean, it's sort of come back. I don't work all the time alone, but it's sort of come back. One thing joins up to the next. I come in the following day and I’d see, oh, that was what I was doing, and it's a bit more like it was. But at the start that would just go away. I’d leave here and my head would be empty. There'd be no continuity at all. If the question is about generally in time like over thirty years, no. I find it's all about fighting. The other thing about isolation is that most artists that I know—and I hope this isn't too much of a generalization—but came to it in some sense of retreat and sanctuary. Looking for some way to get away from something ugly or miserable in everyday humdrum life. It was an escape. It was a way of being in a different reality and to a cooler place where it's more exciting. It was always an alternate place, I think, for most people that make art. It's not a career choice, according to anyone I've ever met, it’s more that you go there because it can be better. But that's not the same as this, and I found that this isolation has required a different level of emotional imagination. It's taken a few tricks, like working with the Midnights stuff, changing my routine a bit and injecting that little bit more of sanctuary and novelty to sort of claw my way back to where I was.

MB: Yeah, it makes sense. Everything is like treading through treacle. I find every kind of mental move has this other layer or this other weight of the now. In many ways, one has to modify or filter the relationship to now. I spend ten minutes on news sources now rather than my obsessive, addictive first two weeks thing that was happening. We have a great question from Graham Martin. He says, thank you very much for this talk and uses the word brilliant. So, let's congratulate ourselves. Alright, getting to it. He said, he loved your exhibition at Hastings Contemporary and then more recently, the show of works on paper at Frieze. I guess getting to it, his question is, how do you feel about this shift? The reception of the works, where does it sit with you? Yeah, what kind of satisfaction is there from...I'm searching for the word, I want to ask you the question, how do you feel about this new body of work and this radical shift?

NC: I think this is a really good question, because you've got to live with it. I've always tried to think of what would I want to look at? Was it Tom Waits or someone who said they made music because they didn't like what was in the shop. They wanted to sort of blend together, this and that, didn't want to choose. And it's like that with me. I'm trying to make the paintings that I want to see and wish existed. I've said that few times in the past, but it does keep coming back. I think in a way, like I said at the top, it's almost like, you know, it's not like I dismiss the earlier work, but it's more like your life, your age or something takes you further into something new. And you notice it happening and you think it might not work anymore. It isn't where I am. I don't know why, but I'm not there at the moment. I'm looking for something else. I'm always looking to engineer that thing. I can't wait to get in here and look at. That been the case with everything I've made. But it doesn't necessarily stay the same. Not with me. The change made sort of becomes less frequent as time goes on. Because I think ultimately this is...has a hand in everything thing I've done in the past. I can trace a bit of every era of my work in this new work. It's a culmination of it for me, it's not a change. That is a gratifying thing, and it feels more like looking in a mirror than anything I've done before. It feels more like it's who I am. That goes back to sort of early interests before art, interests in other things, which I left behind before I chose art. They’re able to breathe in here, too. I think I think that's what it is, really. It's like again, the idea of service. I'm trying to a pay service to the thing I want to look at. Not some idea of that. Not some expression of that or not someone else's interpretation of that. So, I feel like I've arrived at something which feels like home in a way but is only that because of all the other paintings. You know what I mean, it isn't hasn't dropped from the sky. You could only be here through those paintings.

MB: Yeah, that's nice. I love the idea of arriving back home, somehow. Although we’ll continue and we’ll change over time. I wanted to thank you and thank everybody who's been on the Zoom call. This is new to most of us. Our plan B life, but we're getting through it and people are making work and you're making work. I thank you for that. I look forward to your next show and the show in Geneva. Thank you, everyone. Thank you, Nigel. I look forward to us meeting in person again at some point and to your new work. Thank you.

NC: Thank you everyone for coming along!

Video — Studio Visit with Nigel Cooke, Jun 23, 2020