O - N - T - O - L - O - G - Y
Among the axioms of painting arithmetic nowadays is the principle that visual sensation into language doesn't go. The two substances seem downright incommensurable; yet to the advantage, so it appears, of both. A measure of independence is prized on both sides; yet a further feature of this strange calculus is that language and the visual seem to seek compatibility - or translation, to vary the figure - as strongly as they seem to resist it. We might agree that, in the face of a work of painting, artists and viewers need the semblance of a shareable language if only to certify to each other that they are seeing the same objects in the same way; as well as, on a higher level, to modify the visual with language or vice-versa; eventually to the point of erasing one or the other; eventually to reassure the philosophers of art that singular objects can be significant stepping stones in a journey of thought about the world, about qualities, even about Being. Even for works of small or medium scale, such ambitions really do matter. For while every viewer will be able to grasp each artwork's fundamental terms of deployment - a curve here, a tangent there, certain nodes or points of intensity that define the energies of the whole - further description will be needed to articulate the work as a particular; to raise to full reflective consciousness the ontological qualities presented in and through the made thing. At the most basic level we can agree, too, that a painting arises from the application of substance, generally pliable, to a surface - paint, principally, but anything else that can be squashed flat by an implement, or got onto the surface in some other way. We can very happily set aside the style labels that historians and critics like to associate with visual art, the largely rhetorical 'isms' of the trade and market-place. Here are three painters with an interest in the intention-patterns that rhyme and articulate the substances of their work. In the work of one artist (Cook) we find turning, billowing forms that bulge and die away in accordance with principles that stem from the fact of the square format of the picture itself: here seem to be energies replicating those of galaxies that spiral together in dialogue, each curvature bound by the disposition of every other, now appearing as the combined effects of painted areas and densities on a scale at which cosmic evolution and studio practice can make a claim to be the same thing. 'Finding an order out of nothing' is how she describes a process in which the making of a painting functions like the mutual accommodation of liquids in a container, perpetually seeking balance while never fully achieving a state of rest. Even the smallest work of painting, she would say, needs the 'esemplastic power' that Coleridge believed brought opposite forces together in the interests of the whole entity thus formed. A second artist (Jackson) likes flat bands that are sized somewhere between thin lines that define the edge of something and the broader planes whose very edges those same lines might almost be: bands that hook larger planes together as in crocheting; hiding or masking others, while revealing or announcing yet more. She looks closely at arches, and upwards at cupolas. She likes dancing. And she thinks a lot about Heidegger. Each painting shows a rhythm of some sort, premised upon kinds of musical architecture having irregular thematic shapes, not unlike the sonata. 'Studio perceptions are not the appearance of the world reported on', she tells us, 'or sketched in, but the slow revelation, the unfolding, the unconcealment, of being present now'. 'I travel a lot in books', she adds in provocation. A third artist (Taylor) is drawn to ostensibly primitive shapes, here mostly triangles, organised in a manner that tries to mimic processes of growth, real as well as imagined, upon surfaces that are perhaps microbial, or whose miniature scale has been dramatically enlarged with an instrument of visual inspection. At such a range of magnification nature has no surfaces, of course; only forms colonising other forms, substances attempting to coalesce with other substances in given fractal dimensions, and where inscrutable rules of self-organisation are a guiding and governing key. He likes to recall the phrasing of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, reflecting on the Cubist painters of his acquaintance who used to tell him that a painting was a tableau-objet or picture-thing, each with a personality and a Being for others - un être pour autrui as the existentialists came to say.Supplementary works by two other practitioners of visual ontology complete this modest show. When Sonia Delaunay began her wheeling colour circles many decades ago she was able to claim a particularly original bond between the immateriality of light and the matter of the painted surface. She emphasised repeatedly that applied colour must be grasped 'as such' and 'as rhythm'; 'as inner vitality that emanates and communicates' and does so at the opposite pole to mass production. Sol LeWitt on the other hand likes to make work by nominating a single basic process and the rules that govern its application in the service of both the definition and solution of a particular pictorial problem. For him, disavowing intention is just another way of putting intention to its test, namely to give the impression that no effort has been expended in the unfolding of a certain kind of Being. In this sense he is like the earlier European romantics, as well as like us. Yet that is only the beginning of the story. As Sartre famously insisted, the viewer's part is no less dialectical than the artist's: it is only the joint effort of an artist and a viewer 'which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. There is no art except for and by others'.
Brandon Taylor April 2015
Close to the Edge
You are standing in an artist’s studio and you see a painting on the wall. There is another painting behind you, resting on an easel. They are all squares of different sizes. There are more paintings leaning against each other in the corner: Whimble, Yazim, Umbow, and Veezer. There is talk of Charline von Heyl at the Liverpool Tate and reference books lining a shelf - Nozkowski, Delaunay and Murray. You are standing in the studio of Celia Cook and she is preparing for an exhibition at the Adam Gallery.
As you move closer to one of the paintings, there is something oscillating at the surface. Its visual reality is immediate and inescapable yet there is barely an illusion here. In the space of painterly action, something is breaking away from the surface, an ‘impossible object’ that is at once sustained and suppressed by the movement of paint, the play of colour and the curve of light and shade. ‘I want the background and the form as one. I want to deny the idea of a frame that can be looked through,’ says Cook. A line draws the eye across the surface of the painting (and back again). A pattern draws the eye away from the border (and back again). The boundaries between one painterly gesture and another come in an out of attention: they form edges of contact or simultaneous interstices of colour and form. A green circle emerges from the aesthetic space, one that has been drawn and re-drawn from the outside in. Sometimes a figure of eight takes shape, one that is made and re-made in the same way (drawn with a palette knife from the painting’s edge to the formal border of the geometric motif). ‘The whole process of painting is quite confusing. I’m almost sure what I first put down won’t work. I just keep painting, trying to find order out of nothing. I am creating an object.’
Each painting is approached in the same way. Cook starts with left over paint as a way of establishing continuity. You will see a trace of this inheritance infused in shapes, shadows and erasures: a (barely perceptible) common ground that reaches across the palette of the entire work. Cook moves the paint around (often with fast and continuous gestures at first), using a palette knife to mould the negative space of an emergent form. It is here that things start to slow down (and things can go off in different directions). Paint is modeled and re-modeled; it is moved around the aesthetic surface until something emerges in the action space of the painting’s visual performance. ‘The colours have to hover on the surface,’ Cook explains, ‘and fight for equality with other devices. Nothing is happy to be in the background.’ And it’s not just a question of what is added, but also what is taken away. If you look closely, especially at the edges, you can discover a tracing and re-tracing of elements. The edges of things are drawn and re-drawn in the process of ‘getting them right.’ Indeed, with time, the painting affords its own archeology.
From the relative chaos of pattern, colour, light and shadow, the impossible object - a bounded shape instilled with presence - contrives to stand alone with a sense of order and authority. When this implausible structure holds - somewhere between the surface and the viewer - Cook has achieved her goal; you believe in its minor solidity, its holes and fissures. In this regard, the painting now occupies a duality and offers the viewer two visual experiences at once: the objective reality of paint on canvas and the allusive reality of an unrecognizable, unfeasible and un-nameable form (the impossible object) that is neither painting nor not painting. Shapes on and above the surface have acquired a small-scale magnitude and direction, occupying an action space that has been created dynamically by artist. Indeed, you could say that the impossible object now inhabits the surrogate space of the painting, a beyond space (a before space) that is truly a space created by a painter.
In Close to the Edge, the work of Celia Cook offers a purely visual adventure; there is no other message or story. ‘It’s all visual,’ says Cook. ‘The thesis is that.’
Julia Moszkowicz March 2012
For all the traditional romantic ideas emphasising individualism in art culture increasingly it has become accepted that serious work even before it leaves the studio and enters into the public domain is already, with respect to its meaning, in a dialogue or conversation with other work both contemporary and historical. This idea seems particularly relevant when encountering this body of work by Celia Cook, for not only do the individual works engage with other art but could also be seen to engage in conversation with each other. This series of paintings, in their play with constancy and difference around compressed and ‘tumbling’ forms and vivid, near acerbic colour relations seem like moments of suspended animation from a particularly gymnastic and hedonistic painterly work-out. Underlying and generating that play could be seen to be the two preoccupations that have been central to painting since the overt acknowledgement of the flatness of the picture plane by Cézanne.
First, the difficulty of placing curved shapes within a square once flatness has been acknowledged; something that one can see being battled with in Cubism, or Jasper John’s superimposed numerals. Unlike earlier artists, Cook’s work eschews direct representation (though in the curved forms she generates it is difficult not to read a degree of referencing to the organic or natural) but makes evident to us through her placement of those forms in relation to the edge as ‘containing’ and ‘constraining’ or ‘cropping’ how the painterly difficulties can be resolved.
Second, has been the preoccupation with how space and depth can be handled whilst acknowledging flatness, something that has underpinned nearly all significant twentieth century abstract painting. Despite the difference in scale it is not difficult to see visual and conceptual parallels concerning literal and depicted space between Cook’s paintings and Stella’s work of the Eighties. Their works share a similarity of curvilinear forms and at times paint handling: flatly applied areas of colour juxtaposed against modelled areas in the same work. But there is also a fundamental difference: Stella ruptured the picture plane and had real protrusions emanating from the work, as well as areas of illusionary depth, Cook has taken a purely painterly approach. In her work painted forms seem to appear from beneath other forms and arc and protrude towards us but this perception is challenged by the evident flatness and shallowness of that from behind which they seem to have arisen: not only are those forms presented in monochromatic palette-knife-spread-smooth paint, but their literal depth is underscored by allowing the boundaries of any under-painting and revisions to show through and emphasize just how little space there is between the surface of the paint and the surface of the canvas.
Though playful and exuberant in their mode, and in one sense concerned primarily with surface these paintings are far from unserious or unprofound.
Robin Marriner 13th Oct 2008
A field day for proud parents: my child of five could do better than this. But your child of five has a head start: he hasn’t studied art history yet, hasn’t got the vast weight of every other picture that was ever painted bearing down upon him, is still able to look at things and see what’s really there. But already his eyes are getting used to the idea of reading three-dimensional shapes in flat surfaces, and recognising real things from the flimsiest of representations. What will your child see when he looks at Celia Cook’s paintings: shapes that make faces, planes and castles, or shapes that are shapes, sort of squares, sort of rectangles, sort of circles. Will he see big paintings of big things, or big paintings of small things, viewed from close-up?
Few contemporary painters are more successful than Celia Cook in liberating themselves from the habits of a lifetime of eyesight and the demands of a pictorial tradition. In their attempts, some resort to rigorously methodical systems, others to an unbridled splurge with their materials. Celia Cook avoids both. Her compositions are cool and diagrammatic, their elements bound together by an internal logic, locked into tail-chasing movement, except where the artist deliberately trips them up by shaping the canvas into a cul-de-sac of converging perspectival lines. These particular canvases are titled The Circular Ruins, after a favorite story by Jorge Luis Borges, a mysterious story about the difficult boundary between self-fulfilment and futility.
There is trial and error in the creation of all these pictures: a satisfactory shape in a satisfactory colour but in the wrong place is physically moved to a different part of the canvas, the paint scraped off and repositioned. Inevitably its colour and texture are changed in the procedure, and traces of the scraped off areas remain as evidence of the process. And when this process is finished, what are these paintings like? They are like Celia Cook, and Celia Cook is open, honest and direct, determined not to be mysterious, and complex and mysterious in spite of herself.
John Gillett 1990