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. But 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.
On 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.