Ian Cook

- Art Review

The Herald / Visual Arts                                           
                                        IMAGES OF A HEROIC PEOPLE

                              Clare Henry looks at the work of two artists whose creations                      

                              prove we learn much more from other cultures


Controversy has always surrounded Glasgow’s Concert Hall murals and the new series of Campbell, Currie, Wiszniewski – and eventually Howson – are for many no more welcome than the originals by Ian McCulloch.

      Bu t what of other exhibitions? The Concert Hall has acres of empty wall, lots of visitors, and is in the centre of town. It could and should be an ideal popular exhibition venue. Yet after more than five years without any coherent exhibition programme, it has, not surprisingly, gained no great reputation as a venue for art. The architects and designers made life difficult by disregarding the walls, so that no hanging system exists in many areas. The result is a tawdry visual hotchpotch with photographs and model ships, expensive commercial prints, oil paintings, and posters scattered here and there, as if by chance, the majority unlabelled.

      “ We try to match shows with the musical themes. Julian Spalding helps us out,” I was told. The announcement of Louise Mitchell as new director to replace Cameron Mc Nichol in June leads me to hope that she will take things by the scruff of the neck and initiate a proper exhibition programme which is varied, interesting and above all, professional.

      Two excellent shows organised by a group of Dundee-based artists for Celtic Connections in 1994 proves it can be done. Meanwhile, above the messy main space is a major manifestation of the work of Ian Cook produced over the last three years. The hanging is not ideal, but the show, which runs till February the 18th, is impressive none the less.

      Called Promised Land, this massive 120 picture display about Native Americans ties in with Glasgow’s two-week American music festival. Cook has long been fascinated by native history and its sub-culture, and first backpacked across Africa, before exploring Tennessee in the 1980s.

      “ Talking to the Cherokee Indians determined me to return and do something serious,” he says. In 1992, twenty years after graduating from Glasgow School of A, he backpacked across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota.

      “ I went at pow-wow time when they get together to celebrate. I camped on Indian reservations, stayed with Indians in tepees and in houses. Sometimes there was a big dialogue going on, but at other times you felt invisible; as though, understandably, the white man was anathema to them, and they were saying, ‘keep your distance; you’ve done enough harm.’

      “ I found whole townships of Indians. The pecking order exists now as then. Colonisation: acquisitiveness – philosophically, things haven’t moved on.

      So, how to encapsulate a hundred years of history? How to paint the rituals and sacred legends of the Sioux, Pawnee, Iroquois, Algonquian and Blackfoot of the buffalo country without levelling them to the genre of sepia – tinted photographs?

 Cook has a three-pronged approach: realist, abstract and large scale compositions which combine the two. “ I take sketchbooks and spend the entire time drawing. I have a small watercolour box to make colour notes. Then I work out my compositions later. I love the great, open spaces. The small paintings allow me to do landscapes with some incidental figures in the foreground.”

      These are Cook’s best known pictures and record harshly-lit dramatic figures set against big skies or deserted plains and high plateau. In these vast colour fields of burnt grass and rocky outcrops men are often moving just out of the picture – as in Plains Wind, Harvester, Missoula Sunday, or in the case of Rodeo Judge, the sandy expanse is cut by the whisking tail of a horse exiting stage right.. The semi-abstracts often juxtaposed with the landscapes in the Concert Hall feature Picasso-esque cubist heads, often in profile. “ They relate to Indian totemic symbolism, medicine men and rainmakers allow me to use primary colours. The big paintings are a combination of the two.”

      I had noticed the repeated use of pyramid shapes (which relate to tepees and mountains), but learned from Cook that “triangulation has rich, holy references for the Sioux, while the number four is sacred to the Northern tribes.”

      Cook translates this via geometric squares and, as I guessed, he had spent time in Egypt and likes to include pictograms. “ It allows the imagination to breathe.”

      As a child Cook swallowed his history lessons whole.

      “ It’s only when you’re older that you realise you’ve been led up the garden path, and the balance needs to be redressed.”

      Before his trip, Cook read a fair deal about the political clearances of the Indians and their current social problems with unemployment and alcohol. His subsequent emotional involvement is tangible. “While we have gone after material possessions, most Indians are pursuing spiritual ends.”

      Cook has a romantic streak. His Indians are aloof, heroic, stoic, above all dignified – never stupid or vicious. Rich in hue, in symbols and patterns, notable are his large-scale collage reliefs like Frontier Sentinel with its trapper gunslinger. I also enjoyed the formalised Assiniboin Dancer perched atop a fire, a very bold Sun’s Apprentice and ceremonial Rites with its yellow stripes, zigzags and totem head like an Egyptian cat.

      “ Colours have religious significance for Indians: red for blood blue for the ethereal elements of heavens and water; black for mysticism and the unseen.”

      Cook’s gift is a gestural spontaneity and a sure touch that looks easy but is honed over decades. His brush moves rapidly and with a confidence born of pure professionalism and long hours in the studio. The show is rather overhung and although I hate the large school sign at the top of the stairs, I guess it does act as a strong billboard.

      What next? “ The Bible! The Old Testament has a cruel and savage theme. It tackles the basic conflict of the human race.” Then there’s the British involvement in Dresden and Nuremberg. That should keep him busy. Cook believes in his subjects. As he rightly says: “It’s better than doing just a pot of flowers!”