Monica Cook’s “Milk Fruit” at the Cress

Last night I went back to UTC after work to hear Monica Cook talk about her painting, sculpture, and stop-motion animation as part of the Diane Marek visiting artist series. As usual, the artist is first-rate. MonicaCook1But I’d gotten the impression from reading about Cook in Juxtapoz that her painting was on an equal footing with her sculptural assemblages and animation. I was wrong — she seems to have stopped painting entirely. So my plan to ask her about being a figurative painter, and a woman, in the PoMo/Conceptual underbelly of the NYC art world fell through. I have no idea what is behind her decision to stop painting the large scale, surreal figurative works that she had become well-known for doing, but when I heard her speaking about her decision to stop painting and begin doing sculptural assemblages and animation her voice seemed to break a little.

I came away from her talk surprised and a little puzzled, although truly sympathetic. She is obviously phenomenally talented, but maybe she’s tired of hearing that. Ruth Grover, the curator at the Cress Gallery, spoke of Cook’s determination to learn to draw, driving from Dalton, GA., where she grew up, all the way to UTC as a high school student to attend Tuesday-night figure drawing class. That kind of determination to learn anatomy and drawing doesn’t just disappear, ever, in my experience. A quiet and soft-spoken woman, Cook said that painting in her studio alone, using reference taken in photo shoots, was something she preferred, so it hardly seemed that the sheer stress of painting was what got to her. She only said she “wasn’t happy with how she was painting.”

She spoke bravely of forging ahead in her own direction, not allowing critics to derail her. I asked her if her collectors had wanted her to paint the same thing over and over and over, and she thoughtfully nodded yes. It was “like a divorce,” she said, to be cut off from her gallery representation and to lose so many collectors at once. Having experienced a bit of the same thing on a smaller scale I can understand a little how she felt. But still her decision saddened me a little bit. She must have worked in her studio many long, lonely hours over many years to paint at such a level.

MilkFruit1On the other hand, perhaps creating an assemblage like “Milk Fruit” could be artistic therapy if one were just sick and tired of painting for a bunch of collectors and galleries continually demanding more of the same. Cook’s love for grotesquerie is given full rein here: it’s funny, charming, and even she called it “ugly.” In both her paintings and her assemblages, her obsessions seem to center around the body and its frightening needs vs. sacrifice and discipline. But there is redeeming humor amid this strung-together farm circus, and in her charmingly comical stop-action videos too.

I would love to see her go in the direction of the more recent 3-D work from 2014 that she showed in her talk. Delicate and beautifully finished, these translucent waxen figures and skeletal underpinnings dip beneath a surface reminiscent of still water — constructed from delicate veils of broken windshields. Yes, you heard me right, broken windshields. I thought I heard her tell someone she “made the bones herself.” These assemblages seemed to possess more of the weird luster of her paintings. I would love to see some of her animations with this level of lovely iridescent finish too.

I admit I was really looking forward to seeing some of her shimmering, fleshy, slimy figural paintings close up, even while feeling guilty for contributing one more voice to what is probably a cacophony of critical nagging. I asked her if she would ever paint again, and she said she probably would. I imagine she will, but on her own terms. You go girl, but please don’t stop doing the thing you do better than just about everyone else. At least not forever.

Postscript: I put a link to this post on my Facebook page, with Monica Cook’s painting above (which is not titled on her website or otherwise I’d credit it, but naturally it’s by Monica Cook), and was a bit taken aback by the response. Comments started with “Eeeeuw” to “Repulsive.” Wow. No one could see the beautiful painting because they were too wrapped up in their response to the subject matter, which is pomegranate seeds and feet, people. I thought surely that Cook stopped painting because some de-skilling critic shamed her for being “talented,” but now I wonder if it was prissy comments about her subject matter. Men make much, much ickier works of art and get paid bags of money for it. Why is it that women are expected to paint pretty, polite pictures that don’t offend on any level? I will have more to say about this later.

Death and Painting – Skyping in the Blank Spots

Writing these next few essays has felt like untangling a long skein of thread and then carefully knitting it together, making sense out of something that had been chaotic. For an artist, for all of us, life and work are connected, and so it is here.

As it fell out, mostly because of location, I was the “designated sibling” during the final illnesses of my parents. I almost stopped painting, except for my scientific illustration, and I stopped writing. One thing self-help experts will tell you about such times is to try to nurture oneself, and with that in mind I embarked upon a series of Skype classes with a painter named Richard Thomas Scott.How I ended up doing this begins with another painter originally from Norway named Odd Nerdrum.

ManwithHead-copyThe first time I heard of Odd Nerdrum was an article back in the mid-90’s (in ArtNews, perhaps) which included an image of a darkly stupendous painting called “Man Holding the Head of his Lover.” It appealed to my deeply ingrained Gothic sensibility – as a child, my mother had taken me and my sister on graveyard tours, seeking out moss-covered gravestones and speculating on the lives of the ancient dead — and reminded me a bit of some dark fantasy illustrators I’d seen (John Jude Palencar springs to mind) except with freer brushwork and on a scale too grand to fathom. The painting puzzled me too – this was one of the big art magazines from New York, and yet this painting looked almost like something by Rembrandt. I knew just enough about the New York art world in 1994 to know that ArtNews didn’t give the time of day to anyone who painted like Rembrandt, or John Jude Palencar either. What was going on?

On-KitschThen several years later I picked up a book, On Kitsch, vaguely recognizing the author’s name, and struggled through the rather dense philosophical essays. It seemed to be all about a new kind of painting called Kitsch, which was not hokey bad art; in fact, it was supposedly not art at all. This confused me yet again, in fact, I could hardly get my head around some of the ideas at first. Sunsets? Pretty girls? Sincerity? All of us products of 20th Century art education knew this would get us laughed out of any modern classroom and most galleries too.

A few more years passed, and I came across more references to this painter. One day my son, working at a bookstore after college, told me about a co-worker who was a painter, and showed me a photo of his amazingly mature self-portrait. His friend hoped one day to study painting in Norway, with a famous painter who had a very strange name . . . I had to find the book to remember the name on the tip of my tongue . . . Yes, it was that Nerdrum fellow again!

The more I saw of Nerdrum’s work the more he reminded me of some new Rembrandt, although I have to admit that Rembrandt was never my favorite Old Master painter. I remember disliking Rembrandt once, long ago, because I thought he painted heavy women with dimpled thighs. Ha! I shake my head now at my youthful folly. Nor did Nerdrum’s style, impasto laid on heavy linen, immediately appeal to me in that way I’m sure other painters recognize, like wanting to possess a new car or lover: Oh, I must paint like that someday!

And some of his work puzzled me (for the umpteenth time) in light of his writings about lack of irony and sincerity. Surely an exquisite rendering of a row of women defecating in the woods is a joke – right? Or a self-portrait spotlighting the painter’s slightly crooked erection? At the time, I could only imagine these paintings to be sly and contemptuous visual statements: “Art critics, suck on this.” “You won’t look at a nice sunset? How about this?” Perhaps they were simply disingenuous ways to succeed in the Post Modernist art world, that monstrous maw always seeking the next shocking image. Nerdrum seemed in some ways a deeply flawed and vulnerable man, but his best paintings radiated a profound dignity, and a deep mystery too.

I was obsessed for a while with this Odd mystery, bundling it up with my obsession with Renaissance painting techniques, and I discovered there were other people out in cyberspace who were obsessed too.  A lot of them seemed to be artists like me who grew up during the latter part of the 20th century wanting badly to paint “real”, but who missed out on the requisite training.

At the state university where I got my degree in 1984, my oil painting instruction consisted of Fly free, little bird! What I’d wanted to learn to do was paint people, people who looked at least passably real, and not just lying around but flying, jumping, wearing costumes, preferably set in elaborate backgrounds, like the SF and fantasy illustrators who were the only living illusionistic painters I knew. How do I make things look like that? Where do I even start? After graduation, when my children were young, I’d taught myself to paint in egg tempera from a Dover book, and applied what I’d learned to paint well enough in acrylics to get some illustration free-lance work. I could always draw, and finally ended up working as a scientific illustrator, very happy that I’d found a niche. But still I longed to paint in oils and do it well.

After graduation I haunted the stacks in the university library, where I had discovered a whole shelf of forgotten books on the painting techniques of the Old Masters.  My favorite was The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, by Jacques Maroger. I don’t know how long it had been in the library but I was the only person who had ever checked it out, and I suspect I still am. I actually ordered powdered white lead when it was still available and came this close to boiling it with linseed oil until it turned black and transparent, in an iron pot over a fire in my back yard. This was supposed to be the magic medium of the Old Masters that made their paint flow like dark honey from the brush! Odd Nerdrum actually did it, and it ruined some of his pictures, melted them right off the canvas. He had to paint pictures over again, pictures he had already sold, and this led to his terrible tax problems with Norway. So it’s probably for the best I never boiled linseed oil and lead in my back yard, although in my case it would only have resulted in poisoning myself and the rest of the neighborhood.

Like a painting technique porn junky, I ended up cruising the internet for articles about Nerdrum and his fabled technique. These articles had the tone of Maroger’s book – Here is the secret! The final secret of painting! In online forums people talked about Odd Nerdrum’s palette, mediums, and the precise sort of herringbone linen he uses. I knew the information was flimsy, but still my heart beat faster!

Along the way I began running across names of his students here and there.  I would write them down on bits of paper, Google them and bookmark their websites, and then carefully study their work. Nerdrum’s students — and there are a lot of them, both men and women — were representational painters of course, but very much individuals, sharing a hint of the fantastic coupled with a grandeur I’d not found elsewhere. By the way, I hope this doesn’t sound as if I were cyberstalking Nerdrum students. If you are or were a student of Odd Nerdrum, I promise I won’t show up at your house — although it’s possible I might crash your next gallery opening but only if it’s in a city within easy driving distance. Hint: there might be some nice galleries in Atlanta!

I finally stumbled upon ArtBabel, a blog full of juicy information-rich articles, many written by someone named Richard Thomas Scott, a real live student of Odd Nerdrum. He was quite a wonderful painter himself, because there was one of his paintings with very real-looking naked people floating in the ether! Jackpot! I emailed him because there was contact information on the website and an invitation to join something, I wasn’t sure what, but I must have kept dogging him until he finally emailed me back.

At some point Skype classes were mentioned. The classes consisted of me and a few other people in various parts of the world watching Richard paint somewhere in Paris, I think from Odd Nerdrum’s house in exile, while he talked about the philosophical underpinnings of Nerdrum’s “Kitsch painting.” The connection went bad sometimes, but it was great fun, I learned a lot, and watching Richard paint was more useful than anything. We could ask Richard any questions we wanted about mediums, stretching linen, underpainting, and how to pronounce grisaille – mispronunciation being, of course, the awful curse of the Southern painting autodidact.

The Skype classes were during bright day in Tennessee, but the windows in the Paris studio on my computer screen were dark. Richard glanced at himself reflected in the dark window glass with the lights of some Parisian suburb shining in the darkness behind him, and painted his image twice on the canvas. He painted with astonishing facility, without a sketch as far as I could see. Whenever I do this I paint myself off the canvas or make somebody’s head too big. Richard never knew it, but as the weekly classes evolved, the lights in his studio window and his painting began to resemble the night view from the winding road up the mountain where we had moved in with my father during his final illness. I had begun having a panic attack every time I had to drive that road at night, even though I had done it hundreds of times over the years. There was no guard rail and the lights of the city twinkling in the black void a thousand feet below had suddenly begun to terrify me. It was all about dying, I know, the terrible fear of falling into the abyss myself before I had a chance to paint the pictures inside me.

Here is the painting Richard did while he talked to us:


I’m not sure if this was the first time Richard had students, but when I saw the title he gave the painting, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” I wondered if that was how he felt, because I remembered feeling that way myself when I first taught painting years ago. My friend Neil Robinson knew I needed a job and offered me a position teaching oil painting to people at the Senior Neighbors center downtown where he was art director. I told him I didn’t know enough — in fact, I knew almost nothing beyond what I’d learned in college. He said, “You know more than they do.” I’ve never forgotten that. Then he said, “And you’ll learn more than they do.”

The second time I took Skype classes from Richard, I watched him paint “The House on the River Lethe.”


When I saw the “floating” chair, hanging by a rope from some invisible ceiling hook in the studio behind him, I laughed and said, “That looks like something I would do.” I love surreal painted illusions when they’re done really well. Once again, without a sketch, he rapidly painted the light reflecting on the polished wooden floor of his studio. In Greek mythology, the River Lethe is where souls forget their past lives; and in Dante’s Inferno, he is washed in the River Lethe to forget his past sins and complete his atonement. The painting reminded me of how I felt when I started getting rid of things that weren’t working in my life, letting things go one by one. Empty.

I would have loved to buy “The Blind Leading the Blind,” but it was beyond my budget.  But then early this year Richard had a Kickstarter campaign to support him doing some insane number of small paintings in a month.  I bought a share to get an 8×10, and ended up with this little jewel, “The Gloaming.”

the-gloamingThe first thing I noticed about the painting when it arrived was the facility of the execution, because I am above all else an admirer of beautiful painting. The swift little highlight on her nose caught my eye, done in a second, I am sure. I have seldom been able to paint with that assurance – except, for some reason, when I’m doing a demonstration for students.

But I have a confession: after admiring the lovely technique, for reasons I could not quite fathom, I carefully put the painting away in a cupboard. Every time I walked by, I would see it in the shadows and ask myself why I didn’t take it out and have it framed. I finally realized that her downturned face and hands (has she been twisting them? Could she be clutching a damp handkerchief?) subtly conveyed some mix of raw emotions — loss, regret, resignation — with such intensity that it almost broke my heart. Having received many well-meaning suggestions to “paint more cute stuff” over the years, I don’t believe the mood of a painter’s work can be changed, or should be. Being largely unconscious, deliberate efforts to lighten mood risk losing that connection with spirit that make a painting truly powerful. I’m stunned by Richard’s ability to convey deep feeling so delicately, so economically, in such a small painting. She is alive.

In fact, even more than skills, this is the single most important lesson I learned from Richard: Painting in the 21st Century may now legitimately embody human concerns and sincere emotional connection with the subject. Richard was a wonderful teacher and a fascinating person, and I’m thankful to him for filling in almost all the blank spots in my oil painting education. I finally stopped obsessing about Odd Nerdrum and his painting technique and realized that there is no magical formula for oil painting. Oh, there are mediums and recipes, and some work, or they don’t. In the end, you just have to do it.

A lot of people are talking about a new movement in representational painting, asking if it’s real and if it is what to call it, whether Kitsch, NovoRealism, or Post Contemporary. I can tell you that even here a fresh breeze is blowing through the open windows of my studio. Change is in the air.

Art Swoon Identified!

In my last entry I wrote about how, when I was 17 and in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I burst into tears upon first seeing Simone Martini’s lovely Annunciation.  I thought I had read somewhere that John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, had written about the phenomenon of swooning before great art, but I wasn’t sure.  Well, it wasn’t him —  but there really is an art swoon, and it’s named after the famous 19th century French author Stendhal, the pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle, who wrote about it in his book Naples and Florence:  A Journey from Milan to Reggio.

Wikipedia says: “Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal’s syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. . . Although there are many descriptions of people becoming dizzy and fainting while taking in Florentine art, especially at the Uffizi, dating from the early 19th century on, the syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed and described more than 100 similar cases among tourists and visitors in Florence.”   Another source says that victims are usually young, unmarried women who are seeing the original art for the first time.  So apparently I had a textbook case!

While reading up on Stendhal Syndrome, I stumbled across a reference to a movie called The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome de Stendhal), a European cult film written and directed by Dario Argento.  Argento said the film was inspired by his own experience of disorientation while visiting the Parthenon as a child.  It sounded pretty interesting, so I ordered it from Netflix and watched it one Sunday afternoon.  It sucked, not least because it featured my unfavorite thing in movies, prolonged scenes of torture.  The movie was about a woman who is overcome by a bad case of S. S. in Florence, while working as a police investigator on a serial murder case.  She is kidnapped by the killer, a handsome blond man named Alfredo, who rapes and tortures her in a romantically decayed medieval catacomb beneath the city.  She kills him, then becomes possessed by the killer, which causes her to start wearing a blonde wig and kill people.  In between all this, she is swooning over the art in the Uffizi, although what that has to do with the serial killer I forget.

While watching the movie, I remembered my own very short and innocent fling with a handsome blond Italian fellow named Alfredo while I was in Florence in 1969 — although he was an architecture student, not a serial killer as far as I know.  After I came home, he sent me a letter written in his charming Italo-English, which I tossed out of a moving car on Kingston Pike in Knoxville — I distinctly remember hesitating, my eyes on the return address, the wind sucking it out the window, watching it flutter down the highway — while the man who became my first husband sat beside me, never noticing what I had done.  Thus we make our choices.

More Stendhal Syndrome madness

A few weeks ago, in a used bookstore, I came across a book I’d noticed before:  Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams.  I knew it was about Bosch, one of my favorite painters, and I’ve never seen his work in person, as far as I can remember.  I’d opened the book before and scanned a few pages, hoping it would snag me, but decided her writing style was disjointed and overblown.  I like clarity in a memoir.  But something made me buy it this time.  When I got home, I sat down and started reading and was amazed —  although she never calls it by name, right there in chapter one she’s having a major attack of Stendhal Syndrome in Madrid’s Prado Musuem in front of Heironymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych!  Her experience goes far beyond mine at the Uffizi. She seems to have had an almost psychotic break, leaves her husband (they are Mormons who have taken a marriage vow for all eternity), and spends months or even years in Madrid, becoming “the woman who stares at Bosch.”


Then while slowly slogging through Leap last night, a strange synchronicity occurred. The book had no illustrations, so I dug up an old article I’d saved about Bosch, from the Smithsonian magazine, which often has informative articles on famous artists with color pictures.  The article detailed the theories of Wilhelm Fraenger, who believed that Bosch had been a member of the Brethren of the Free Spirits, or Adamites.  I read the words, “. . .  a secret, heretical sect that practiced nudity and sexual promiscuity in an attempt to re-create the innocence of the Garden of Eden.”  At the very moment I read the word “innocence,” downstairs I heard someone on television boom “Innocence!!”  followed by something about sexual orgies and witchcraft.  Holy crap.  The coincidence was so striking I went downstairs to see what on earth was on tv.  It turned out my husband was watching old episodes of Blackadder:  Blackadder, Rowen Atkinson’s comic 15th century misfit, is tried for witchcraft and is being interrogated by the Witch-Smeller Persuivant (that made me snort out loud).  I have no idea whatsoever about what such a coincidence could mean, except that the universe is laughing at me.

Bravo’s Work of Art:  The Next Great Artist

The other day while watching during the afternoon after work, I ran across a rerun of the last episode of Bravo’sWork of Art:  The Next Great Artist.  I’d heard about the show before, and had meant to watch, but I never can keep up with what’s on tv anymore, and it slipped my mind.  I was glad Abdi Farah won, not only because of his obvious talent, but because he seemed more positive and upbeat than the others, with a real will to draw and paint which would not be denied.  One of the judges, Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine, sniped at Abdi a bit for his traditionalist approach (a sketchbook of drawings — so art school; figurative paintings on a wall), but thankfully the other judges must have disagreed.

Reading an article on the internet about Peregrine Honig (I had to look on Google to find her last name; the Bravo site refers to all the contestants by their first names only, demeaning I think), she seemed to be pursuing the same conceptual themes that she has for the last several years:  drawings and prints of people vomiting, and an obsession with a pair of stuffed fawn fetuses she found in a shop years ago.  She made wax casts of apparently purchased kitsch toys and figurines, and used her project money to have the fawn fetuses professionallly photographed.  I can’t believe I read that correctly. The judges went wild over the photos of the fawns, which Peregrine said symbolized creativity and birth.  Miles Mendenhall — an art-school golden boy, having won competitions and scholarships — took cell-phone photos of a homeless man who, by happenstance, died soon after the pictures were made.  Then Miles enlarged the photos until they became completely unrecognizable dots and printed the dots super-large-scale to create a series of visually connected but meaningless abstract images.  He said the homeless man’s death moved him emotionally, but his empty images distanced both himself and the viewer from any hint of feeling.

Peregrine and Miles both seemed fairly ordinary art-school submissives — nervous and washed-out.  I was intrigued to read that Peregrine’s inspirations include the underground comic legend, R. Crumb. He’s one of my favorites, too. I wonder when she gave up drawing, or trying to learn to draw. I’m convinced that most people go to art school for a simple reason — because they want to draw — but so many end up having that simple desire put down until they finally give up and go home, or learn to play the Art Game.   Peregrine looked so sad and drawn. Perhaps the dead fawns symbolized something in her that had died. I dunno. I’m probably going over the line here.