Nigel Cooke’s paintings deal with the minutiae of entropy and dissolution on an epic scale. In these twenty-first-century negations of pantheism and the Romantic sublime, landscapes are littered with skulls and burnt-out cars, parts of Cooke’s canvas seemingly abandoned – scarred and bare – or else glowing with an eerie luminosity. Iconography veers from the mythological to the kitsch though remains doggedly clichéd, as though the anxiety of influence has slowed all originality.
It should come as no surprise that Cooke wears surgeon’s goggles to ensure the accuracy of his often tiny images; the excoriation of malaise is at once anxious and meticulous, the paintings’ scale undercut by the excessively detailed decay. Although fantasies of sorts, Cooke’s subjects are denied the fairytale possibility of social mobility or anthropomorphism, the animals in these paintings have human vices, cigarette in mouth or drunkenly slumped – as with ‘The Drinker’ (2007), donated by Outset to the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
The scope of a classical history painting is achieved with faux-naïve, heavy black outlines more commonly found in street art or a children’s book – like Enid Blyton done by Brueghel or Banksy. Cooke’s phantasmagorias always operate in the gap between realism and reality.