An artist of the flowing world

Behind the elemental canvases of Barrie Cooke lies Heraclitus's declaration that 'everything flows'.
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The Independent Online

Barrie Cooke was born in Cheshire, educated at Harvard, and has lived in Ireland since the mid-1950s. For the past four decades he has been an independent and greatly admired presence among Irish artists, painting rivers and riverbanks, roots, rain, flesh, bones, nudes, woods, bodies in bogs, fish in (and out of) water, elk horns, algae - everything, in fact, that a hunter and gatherer might encounter or prospect for. And all of this is done with a characteristically muddy if opulent palette, as if la boue and la beauté swam together in the pigment and strove against each other for control. He is a painter in earnest, up to his eyes in the elements and the medium.

Barrie Cooke was born in Cheshire, educated at Harvard, and has lived in Ireland since the mid-1950s. For the past four decades he has been an independent and greatly admired presence among Irish artists, painting rivers and riverbanks, roots, rain, flesh, bones, nudes, woods, bodies in bogs, fish in (and out of) water, elk horns, algae - everything, in fact, that a hunter and gatherer might encounter or prospect for. And all of this is done with a characteristically muddy if opulent palette, as if la boue and la beauté swam together in the pigment and strove against each other for control. He is a painter in earnest, up to his eyes in the elements and the medium.

From the start, Cooke's life and work have paid into each other. During his first years in Ireland, he did in fact live off the land and an aura of the aboriginal has surrounded him ever since. The period he spent on his own in a cottage in the Burren in Co Clare, a more or less self-sufficient fisherman and game-hunter, turned out to be definitive: in one way or another, he has never stopped being out on his own, at a distance from what WB Yeats used to call "the coteries', as much a Ben Gunn as a Paul Gauguin.

No wonder a mutual friend put him in touch with Ted Hughes, another patrolman of the marches who was to become a companion on the salmon rivers of the north-west and the pike lakes of the Irish midlands every year until he died. Each was a complete angler, and their primary aim was to catch fish, but a bonus of these expeditions was their collaboration on a bold set of lithographs. In each print, Hughes's longhand version of his fishing poems and Cooke's big black trawl of loaded landing nets and miscellaneous tackle present themselves so simply and starkly you can almost feel a wind on the back of your neck as you look at them.

But even before we get to the years of his Irish domicile, the curriculum vitae is promising. Here, for example, is an extract from an old catalogue: "1951: An impoverished summer in Martinique, including a brief unhappy spell working in a slaughterhouse, redeemed only by a first reading of Rabelais." The information there may be sparse enough, but the suggestion of intellectual eagerness in the context of offal and the tropics gives you a sense of a man already on some sort of quest, prepared to dirty his hands but unprepared to surrender his intelligence - all consistent with the impression a viewer still gets from the paintings 50 years on.

A susceptibility to what we might call the Martinique factor - to lucid air, lucid waters, an encroaching fetor, a reek of corrupting matter - continues to be felt in his most recent work. There has been no dulling of response, the drama of fresh encounters with the world and with the medium is as vital as ever. What is being registered is an original, creaturely delight in rivers and rocks, or a corresponding sense of affront at algae and pollutants of all sorts in lakes and seas; and what keeps the feeling of first-timeness alive is, paradoxically, a lifetime of action in front of the easel, where the painter's well-schooled sense of his predecessors in the art has accommodated itself to his need to proceed without calculation, surrender himself to the work in hand.

A pursuit of the true thing through a discipline of abnegation shows not only in Cooke's conduct at the easel, but in his indifference to the business of exhibiting. Already in Martinique, the inclination to go walkabout is in evidence, and the impression of somebody not particularly interested in positioning himself for career purposes has been borne out by his demeanour and commitments ever since.

There have been marvellous one-man exhibitions, of course, in Dublin and The Hague, in France and the United States, and he has figured significantly in many group shows of Irish painting that have been toured in Britain and Europe. Even so, his chosen habitat continues to be far from the gallery and gossip circuit, and his talk is more likely to get excited when he is reporting the weight of a big salmon than when he is reacting to the latest overprice paid for Irish art by the cub millionaires of the Celtic tiger.

This should not be read as indifference to the world, or lack of conviction about the crucial work that art can and should perform in it. There is nothing quietist in his stand-off. In fact, there is great activism in his concentration, and years of silent brushwork and rodwork have only served to deepen his awareness of something crucial at stake, something to which and for which he is answerable.

If I had to describe that "something", I would say it is a vision of the inter-connectedness of all life, its vulnerability and its deliciousness. On the wall of his studio, for example, Cooke has inscribed in Greek Heraclitus's declaration that "Everything flows', but he also has newspaper reports of chemical poisoning of local rivers and lakes, and press photographs of fish-kills and oil-slicks. And the concerns that are obvious on the walls of his work-room inform the images that have figured - often radiantly, occasionally indignantly - on the canvases that constitute his by now richly coherent oeuvre.

The Heraclitus quote is only to be expected from a man who spends his time stepping into rivers. But Cooke also spends much time poring over books - at Harvard, for example, he studied Chinese poetry as well as biology and art history - and one book worth mentioning in connection with his work is Sensitive Chaos, a translation of an "alternative" scientific text by Theodor Schwenk, published in 1965.

This has been described as belonging to a tradition "based on visionary insights bolstered by sustained observation and a fundamental belief in an underlying natural unity". Schwenk is as liable to talk about the way bones "flow" into one another across the particular space of joints as to study the dynamics of river-water pouring over a stone, and however sceptical the official scientific community might have been about the anthropomorphic elements in his discourse, there was great attraction for Cooke in the book's central insight that a watery principle lay behind all processes, something fundamentally rhythmical and fluid.

So the bones and blood of the Martinique slaughterhouse begin to tie up with other things observed on other expeditions undertaken by Cooke. In the mid-1970s he headed for Borneo, where the downpours sluicing through creepers and slicking the tree-trunks of the rainforest brought him to his painterly senses in a new way; and again in the Eighties, his jubilation at discovering an environmentalist's (and fisherman's) paradiso in the rivers of New Zealand led to a rhapsodic reawakening of something celebratory in his impulse and his art.

During the 1980s, in fact, he permitted himself a kind of epical joy: images of the Great Irish Elk with its incandescent horns lifted towards the galaxies like receiving stations, nudes whose sensuality was as drowsy as a seal's and as cultivated as an odalisque's; flesh-coloured mandalas of mating that could be read as takes on a how-to sex manual or aids to meditation in a sacred text. There was an element of proclamation about it all, as if he were waving the banners of nature's kingdom and mustering its forces for the battle against pollution and destruction which life on the planet has now turned into.

To put it like that, of course, makes it all sound too rhetorical and preachy. Many of the recent paintings take up the theme at a point where the relish of pigment and the recognition of corruption intersect: the seductive glitter and slither at the mouth of a pipe in a waste disposal system is seen as a phenomenon that is both fascinating and deplorable; the blisters and soft infestations that attend the process of potato blight are rendered in all their sinister beauty.

Something I wrote in the early 1990s about Cooke still applies to this recent work: his wariness about being co-opted as the celebrator of a given, pristine, pre-economic, extra-political nature has occasionally come to the fore in images of pollution. But his belief in the necessity of re-establishing clean personal contact between each individual and the plane - a belief rooted in his countryman's hand-to- hand, hour-by-hour contact with flora and fauna - gets painterly expression in, for example, images that proclaim a solidarity with Sweeney, the "green man" of the Middle Irish saga.

The actual image of Sweeney may not figure in the new show, but his spirit presides. Sweeney's story tells of a king who was cursed by a saint and banished to the woods and hills, turned into a panicky, bird-like creature, as intimate with wind and rain as Poor Tom on King Lear's storm-lashed heath. As a result he became a mouthpiece for some of the most enduring and intense nature poetry in the Irish language, and I don't think it too fanciful to see Barrie Cooke's sojourn on the wild side of the Irish landscape as the endeavour of a green man redivivus, a kind of Sweeney come-back whose canvases possess the same unmediated quality as the poetry of the original.

Barrie Cooke - Groundwater: Recent Paintings, Art Space Gallery-Michael Richardson Contemp- orary Art, St Peter's Street, London N1, to 4 Nov. A longer version of this article appears in the current edition of 'Modern Painters'

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