New Accursed Art Club is a large, unframed and detailed painting depicting a small group of male figures in an untidy landscape, set against a background featuring brutalist architectural structures. Five men with unkempt grey beards and tatty-looking clothes are shown on a small hill or escarpment in the foreground. One is seen painting a picture, while another is drinking from a bottle and one reads a book. To their left a further man is seen from the side, urinating onto the floor. He is significantly smaller, as if further away, although the size difference seems exaggerated in relation to his distance from the other figures on the patch of ground. Long, tendril-like weeds emerge from grass in the foreground and reach across the canvas. Some plants in the right half of the work end in flat, mushroom-like shapes bearing misspelled phrases and characters such as ‘FAGET IT’ and ‘?’. A small fire on the right emits thick plumes of smoke. The right side also features a guitar, a tree bearing scrawled graffiti and an ambiguous turquoise area at the far edge, seemingly containing another figure. The buildings in the background appear faint, as if distant or seen through mist, and at various points the background is overlaid with brown, stain-like lines that run down the canvas.
This work was made by the British painter Nigel Cooke at his studio in Canterbury in 2007. The canvas was initially covered with a white primer, possibly acrylic, and the scene was then executed in oil paint in many layers, during which time the composition changed considerably. Cooke worked by painting one layer, then partially removing it before applying another. In some areas paint was allowed to drip down the work’s surface. The surface contains a natural resin, which Cooke either mixed with his oils or applied in layers between coats of paint.
Explaining the subject and title of this work in 2009, Cooke stated: ‘I was trying to suggest a reactionary kind of conservative group of makers who are involved in mutual appreciation and supporting each other against the wider world, which is kind of how art often seems to work, as people kind of flock together in little teams and little groups to affirm their position, because it’s a vulnerable place to be’ (Cooke 2009, accessed 9 September 2015). Bearded, dishevelled characters feature in many of Cooke’s works from the period (such as Morning Thinker 2007), and in 2010 he connected them with the ‘historical cliché’ surrounding the figure of the artist, and with ‘the alienating network of textual meanings, some personal, some historical, that an artist becomes when at work’ (Cooke in Bracewell, Cooke, Herbert and others 2010, p.13).
New Accursed Art Club features several striking spatial ambiguities, including the shifting scale of its figures, an unclear relationship between foreground and background and the enigmatic turquoise area on the far right of the composition. In 2006 the critic Suhail Malik claimed that contradictory compositional devices are characteristic of Cooke’s paintings, which ‘unravel the integrity of a world ... in favor of an uncertainty as to where and how the principle of … organisation is to be located’ (Suhail Malik, ‘On the Composstibility of Painting’, in Cooke, Goetz, Goetz and others 2006, p.22). Malik also noted that Cooke’s works are commonly very detailed, requiring ‘continued looking, at different levels and orders of scale … The demand here is for you to move your eyes and their thinking around the picture with only temporary rests on this or that detail, a respite that is already unsettled by the knowledge that something else is happening elsewhere in the painting that also, equally, deserves your attention’ (Malik 2006, p.22).
Describing this painting in 2010, the British writer Michael Bracewell stated that its figures ‘occupy a landscape that is both urban and destitute – as though a debased pastoral had been colonised by a slab-like modernist architecture’ (Michael Bracewell, ‘Some Notes on Recent Paintings by Nigel Cooke’, in Bracewell, Cooke, Herbert and others 2010, p.6). In 2005 Cooke acknowledged that his landscapes frequently suggest ‘a cultural frontier between the edge of one civilisation and the beginning of another’, often with a ‘natural world’ on one side and ‘another version of this [world]’ on the other. He claimed that by showing these realms encroaching on one another, his paintings imply that ‘everything can change, everything is ripe for reinvention’ (Cooke in Cooke, Goetz, Goetz and others 2006, p.20).
Nigel Cooke, Ingvild Goetz, Stephan Goetz and others, Nigel Cook: Paintings 01–06, London 2006.
Nigel Cooke, ‘Work In Focus: Nigel Cooke’, Tate, 11 March 2009, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/work-focus-nigel-cooke, accessed 9 September 2015.
Michael Bracewell, Nigel Cooke, Martin Herbert and others, Nigel Cooke, London 2010, p.6, reproduced pp.42–3.
Supported by Christie’s.