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On view through June 2 at Pace Gallery is “Nigel Cooke: Midnights”—an online exhibition of new works on paper. All six pieces in the show were created between March and April, at nighttime, while the artist was in isolation due to COVID-19.
Cooke’s large-scale drawings show his shift toward abstraction, beginning with dark hues of blue and black, and celebrate “the peaceful unity of night, the precious value isolation holds for creative expression,” he said.
In response to the pandemic, all proceeds from the first sale in this series will be donated to the NHS Charities Together. And today at 12 p.m. EDT, Cooke is hosting an online studio visit, which guests can RSVP to. An elaboration on a recent studio visit, he’s sharing a look into his space outside of Canterbury, Kent, to show how self-isolation has been fueling his creative expression.
Whitewall spoke with Cooke to hear how he’s working in confinement, what’s keeping him inspired, and what aspects of life give him a reboot for the mind.
WHITEWALL: How are you doing?
NIGEL COOKE: Pretty well. I’ve been very fortunate as my set-up is quite isolated already. I’m generally reclusive as an artist, so in many ways some things are more peaceful and easier for me like this, because a lot of the outside distractions have shut down temporarily. I am missing the cinema though, and seeing art in real life. I’d love to see a painting by someone else at some point! It’s been really great spending time with my family. We have three daughters, so it’s been interesting learning more about their projects, watching them gravitate towards their interests. I worry about them more as their social lives were cut off so suddenly.
WW: What are you listening to, reading, watching?
NC: I am currently reading Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing, having just finished her excellent The Lonely City, about her experiences of loneliness in New York and the restorative properties of art—how art can articulate and embody the complexity of isolation. She is a riveting and original writer on art, and I have become quite addicted to her work. I am also rereading some older things too, including the Odyssey and Don Quixote, which I’m reading alongside Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte—a hugely ambitious and complex “version” of the story, to put it one way.
Of course, “Tiger King” has been watched…but it can be hard to find something good. It’s all wearing a bit thin now so any recommendations welcome! I have been following a musical train of thought on Spotify that has led me to some interesting things. I love quite abstract music with a classical kind of feel—Colin Stetson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, GAS, Terry Riley, and Meredith Monk. Inevitably film scores feature quite heavily.
WW: What are you cooking?
NC: I’m not a particularly skilled cook, so I learned a while ago to let the ingredients do the talking so it tastes good with little effort. Really that means I try to base everything on the Italian model, with lots of fresh herbs and quality ingredients that make it seem more skillful than it is. The wine is key too, gets the audience on your side. Like many people I know, I’ve found my relationship to wine has “deepened” during lockdown! But I do enjoy the process of cooking. Vaguely predictable results, making people happy. It’s all good for you; all a good reboot for the mind.
WW: How are you staying connected?
NC: Like most people, the Zoom drinks meet is a regular way of punctuating weekends. It’s been brilliant, actually. Your imagination kicks in, and before you know it, you could almost be in the same room. I find that I’m more in touch with everyone than I would be, which must be good. There’s more time spent messaging and on Instagram and whatever, you can hardly keep up with it. Memes need attention when you’re getting 15 a day. And this situation gives us all something in common, a sharable entry point that means it’s easier to reach out to people we haven’t seen in a while. It’s amazing how quickly it’s become normal.
WW: How are you staying creative? Are you able to make work at this time?
NC: My studio and home are practically the same place, so it has been business as usual in many ways, although with a house full there are always other things to get involved in. But I think that’s good anyway. I had already started making some changes in terms of my schedule so it has actually fitted in fine, it can be good to work less.
I think I’ve figured out that time in front of my work is not always time well spent, so why not move it around a bit? It’s important to build up a head of steam, to form some resistance so that my time making work is explosive somehow. I’ve not always been like this, but it was going this way before lockdown and I always enjoy being out of step with routine.
To add to this, I set up a small studio in my basement for odd spare moments, and started making images on the back of old school exercise books I found down there. It became a bit of a labor of love—a visual diary of whatever I was thinking about but in a kind of abstract shorthand.
WW: Where are you finding hope/ or inspiration?
NC: I have enjoyed running, which seems ridiculous but getting into the country as the light is fading has been quite magical. I have loved watching the colours of the trees evolve as the weeks progress, making little notes when I get back with watercolours before the cooking kicks off. This kind of circular existence is pretty ideal. I have probably worked my whole life towards this, so it’s with such mixed feelings that it happens to be now. Maybe that’s the source of hope in the end—making your life and art somehow the same thing. Valuing what you have… A lot of good can come out of this.