Perhaps because he has lived in Ireland for most of his long life, Barrie Cooke, though born in Cheshire, England, has the Irish feel for the wet—water, muck, and blood, not to mention the oils he uses in his paintings. His artistic island brothers include Seamus Heaney (“he and I are very similar. . . . We’re both sort of juicy artists”*) and Jack Yeats—Yeats being, like Cooke, a painter of forms with ragged, self-deserting constitutions, ambivalently infected (is it pain, is it pleasure?) with the eternity of the groundless ground of things. Cooke’s work is frequently drawn to the obscure life of the bogs, the pullulations in streams and decay. In it, every representational form is, to adapt Deleuze’s phrase, a “false pretender.” Squint and the form may look achieved, but really it is “a Dionysian machine.” The shapes smear into their muzzy surroundings. The trophy painting of the five-foot long pike (a stuffed fixture in a pub in Co. Clare), shown on page 163, displays, at life size, the greatest pretender in his oeuvre. The fearful pike at first obscures the predella’s sorry array of found objects: rusty fishing stuff—but the fish, too, is a relic. Cooke’s giant Irish deer (shown here on page 161), a species commonly misidentified as elk, is his second most imposing pretender; but the species has long been extinct. Moreover, the galvanized version, in “Electric Elk” (p. 162), is hardly recognizable as an animal: it is an antlered field of energy. Even the antlers shoot out de-boned rays.

Cooke’s artistic range includes abstraction, but the eight following pages illustrate a counter-impulse: empathy with vitality’s war against death, if crossed, to repeat, by a taste for the base and formless.

In all, the subject of Cooke’s paintings is what Deleuze called “the powerful, nonor- ganic Life that embraces the world.” It is their metaphysical passion that makes them strange, primitive, disturbing, exciting, strong. They are part of the great Vitalist stream that broke into the arts in the 19th century and is only now drying up. They may be its last spate.

These introductory comments are followed by a pitter-patter of notes at the end of the color plates.

Calvin Bedient




Notes on the Barrie Cooke color plates:

Plate 1: Small Red Nude. No “too solid” flesh here, but the colors are vivacious, the sinuous body-shapes unapologetic, even somewhat jutting. The figure’s face has dissolved into the sea of passion, but her slightly raised, healthily hefty rump advertises fecundity, not decay, a specific power. In all, she is a locus of contradictions.

Plate 2: Blue and White Figure. The figure’s bones seem poorly dressed in compromised ocher flesh, always already claimed by the earth. This “nude” (the term trembles to be used in this context) might be turning away from a too-high bed—or be an amputee in flight! Her features are orange blurs smacked by a feverish ruby stain. Though sexed, she has no vitality to speak of (compare the thriving black pubic woods in Small Red Nude). Take this pain of Life from my soul.

Plate 3: Megaceros Hibernicus. The red-striped body looks like a flayed carcass. Is the deer look- ing our way? Does it have a face at all? Never mind, the burdensome outsize antlers will still fight for survival at any cost. How out of relation they are to the extra-long, touchingly deli- cate legs. Although imposing, this creature, any creature, deserves better than to have to live this way, in this contradictory form, this ferocious pathos. That ocher again. Harshness; the lack of choice; struggle—this is Barrie Cooke’s primary note. Also a certain splendor. The pink in the antlers breaks the heart.

Plate 4: Electric Elk. The antlers are like a giant moth wanting to fly, flee, burn, exult; the rest of the animal, vestigial, hardly reaches the register of representation. These are not trophy antlers; call them, instead, the Real. We confront a metabeast from somewhere near the heart of Life—Life, say, as betrayed by the 10 billion hydrogen-bomb-level explosions per second at the core of the sun, which beats like a heart, if irregularly. Life that is not human. Oh my goodness not human.

Plate 5: The Lough Derg Pike. See the comment in the introductory note. Petrified pride. The fish-scales dissolved and watery, the water itself fractured, tending to patches, cloud-like for- mations, seeming solids.

Plate 6: Double Knot: Knot made of pink-blushing flesh? Boneless? As free of armature and skeleton as giant worms. Eroticism: a writhing, headless tangle.

Plate 7: Night, Trench Lake. The title’s “Trench” (as in military; as in a mass-burial site) is un- nerving. Here, primal obscurity is a ragged oval of opaque white, which is patchily framed by squiggly splotches in mutating blue, green, purple, and brown. These last, however, enjoy increasing lightness and transparency, a seeming peace, as they approach the mysteriously luminous center. Does the center, then, hold an invitation? Would you care to look further into this hole? (N.B., Cooke used to fish with Ted Hughes.)

Plate 8: A glimpse at the big-elk size of the paintings as exhibited at the Crawford Gallery, Cork. Note the long, reclining nude in the top photograph: Olympia crossed with a fish. 

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