Barrie Cook’s paintings have occupied a distinctive position within British Art for over 30 years. Since the mid 1960’s he has maintained an almost unbroken allegiance to spray – painting. This technique has had few notable adherents and his achievement is to have established this way of working as a legitimate and versatile mode of expression in a fine art context.
Questions about visual truth and ambiguity are brought to mind, as we each form our own internal comprehension of Cook’s multi-hued canvases, which as a rule go against the grain of traditional representation. The use of spray-paint, having become an iconic and recognisable technique of Cook’s, was originally adopted to navigate having just two days a week to dedicate to his work, and a need to process and form his ideas quickly. In its scale, unexpected colour combinations and dramatic yet technically intricate forms, it is easy to view Cook’s work as a physical manifestation of the creative mental process, an idea that is lent credibility through layered and rapid execution.
Trained academically, the development towards spray-painting was, in Cook’s words, to ‘break the habit of brushstroke mentality’, and to escape the potential clichés that arise from a ‘monotony’ of technique. Cook’s work seems self-reflective, playful, apparently enjoying its ability to surprise its viewers – and indeed, its creator – through its versatility of form and colour. Our interpretation of the work must re-set itself with each piece we observe, a deliberate method of Cook’s to displace any sense of comfort and security, and to invite a deeper, prolonged response not simply to the work itself, but to our own interpretation of it.
Since moving to Cornwall, with its clear light and sparkling seas, Cook’s palette has broadened, shifting from the earlier sombre blues and greys to a greater emphasis on primary and secondary colours. These paintings, with their vibrant turquoises, lush oranges and citrus yellows, point to an aesthetically recharged artist with a more exuberant edge to his work. It would be wrong to imagine that they have lost their profundity of purpose: the message may have altered somewhat, but the motivation remains as committed as ever.