Ian Cook

- Press Reviews

NOBLE NATIVES CAUGHT              PRESS REVIEW/ Scotland on Sunday ‘96

Ian Cook’s survey of Native American culture touches the soul, writes

W. Gordon Smith

      Throughout the next three weeks literally thousands of people will have thrust before their very eyes a major exhibition of 120 paintings by a contemporary Scottish artist on the walls of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.. Concert audiences, especially for a programme of American music, will see Ian Cook’s Promised land, a symbolic survey of native American culture in the Hall’s generous gallery and loitering spaces. At last, I say with profound relief, and with the hope that who have the chance to see will also take time to look. The exhibition is open to the public outwith concert performance times.

      Over the past few years in these columns and elsewhere, I have campaigned to get some recognition for a remarkable artistic project which began in 1992 when Cook, entirely at his own expense, spent three months wandering in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and North Dakota among the remnants of the Blackfoot, Assiniboin, Shoshoni, Crow, Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes. He backpacked, as they say, camping out on the plains which had been Native Americans’ heartland and territory, sketched furiously everywhere he went, and met them in the most convivial of human ways when they joined him and pow-wowed under the stars at the flaps of his tent – friendly feet at a fireside.

       Cook lives and paints in Paisley, where he was born, teaching two days a week to keep his family’s body and soul together. He trained at Glasgow School of Art from 1969 – 72, won the W.O.Hutchison Drawing Prize, a post graduate diploma and travelling scholarships and bursaries took him on painting expeditions to Spain and North Africa in 1974 and Central Africa in 1984. Throughout the seventies and eighties, he was given solo exhibitions by commercial galleries in Glasgow and Edinburgh and exhibited in many important British and European group shows. His reputation as a traveller – an artistic variation on the exploits of his intrepid historical namesake – was fortified by ‘African Images’, a one-man show at the Scottish Gallery in 1990. He remains philosophical about the fact that his pictured, while critically acclaimed, do not offer him any prospect of affluence.

      Most of this decade as been spent, one way and another, on ‘Promised Land’, researching the subject, planning his itinerary, living and sketching among the Plains Indians, producing a massive body of paintings and relevant documentation, then spending two years trying to find a public space which would accommodate all –or even a substantial part – of so much dedicated industry. The management of GRCH should be congratulated; many other public funded-galleries who turned him down should be ashamed of themselves.

      Cook is a fretful painter. He is, first and foremost, an artist – a figurative expressionist if we must have a label –whose muscular graphic lines are softened and and decorated by intuitive harmonies of colour. You can see the influences of Picasso, and Matisse and Kandinsky, but only at the edges of his own personal circumference. He is even more strenuously his own man in the committed social narrative of his work. There is nothing neutral about his polemical voice or humanist stance. And he speaks, as in my experience, so many painters do, from an informed and considered intellectual base. At 45 he knows who, what and where he is in a weary world.

      The tragedy of the North American Indians, the pre-Holocaust act of genocide, which slaughtered a race and destroyed their culture, then romanticised them as noble savages without any understanding of their spiritual life, was a natural subject for his art and a spur to his visual imagination. As an expressionist artist – becoming increasingly abstract – he has evolved a style which distorts reality as a means towards translating emotional and intellectual response. As a symbolist, he has gathered an entire totem of Indian cultural items – buffalo, beaver, the north wind, rainbows, hawks and geese and crows, skulls smoke and fire, flutes and whistles which make birdsong, an infinity of space, anthropomorphic stones, shamans, horses, strong drink, the ceremonials of war and fertility, ancestral voices – wand woven them into poetic parables about life and death, song and dance, joy and sadness, and the beauty and ugliness of peace and war. The effect in daylight, on the Concert Hall’s stark grey walls, is quite extraordinary. On the nights when Aaron Copland’s plaintive wail of the prairie and the lambent melancholy of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings filter through the muffled doors of the auditorium, clichés of the modern repertoire and Classic FM will surely regenerate and join Cook’s images in sympathetic requiem.

      I spent the best part of two hours with him and his work, and realised it would take a whole day to do justice to the artists and his native American saga – for saga it is, an unfolding procession of oils, acrylics, watercolours and gouaches, occupying three very substantial spaces. His big oils, on a scale I have not seen before, are most impressive. Night Song and Heyoka: The Clown, two glowing abstracts commanding the head of staircase, set the standard. Nearby is An Indian hears his Rights, a savage parody of the corrupt land settlement system which worked on the principle “everything to me now and maybe something to you, little brother, in the sweet by-and-by.

      For a figurative painter who tends to make a stylised portrait out of all his subjects, Cook is a sensitive and atmospheric landscape artist. Hills with magical names, empty prairie, and banks of soaring cumulus seem conjured out of Indian dream time, seen through the mists of sacred smoke. His many treatments of the north wind echo his description: “ Prevailing against it is the hardest task. It blows down the continental divide from Canada and frosts the foothills of the Rockies in midsummer.

      A Jesuit priest, black as a scorpion, earns the comment: “They do more good than harm. This one carries the spiritual burden of the Indians upon his shoulders like the weight of the world.”

      Devil’s Brew, powerfully free and graphic, depicts an Indian who has sought fresh visions through the neck of a bottle. In an ideal world, even the most informed spectator’s understanding of this exhibition would be enhanced by the accessories of Cook’s commentary.

      He spent some solemn hours at the Little Bighorn battlefield, came away with illusions dispelled irony bitten deep in his mind, and America revealed “as Hydra reborn; if you cut off one of her heads she will falter, as she did in Vietnam, but she’ll recover to avenge herself, as she duly demonstrated in the Gulf.” Perhaps the most challenging painting in an exhibition which combines haunting imagery with pictorial splendour is Ghosts of the Bighorn, the spirits of a soldier and an Indian, resurrected from the conflict of 1876, inseparable in death and life.

      As I was drawn to it, a piano tinkled in an adjoining room. The tune, played by some urchin youth, was The Sash my Father Wore. Such is life. Such is art. Such is tribal Glasgow. Amen.