Judy Cooke and the quiet challenge

Judy Cooke's new work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery leads to a series of questions and some important answers


Judy Cooke’s paintings at Elizabeth Leach Gallery are for those who enjoy thinking about painting. They do not grab the viewer with bright color or bold brushwork. They are quietly challenging.

There are 11 medium-sized to small works in the show. They aren’t serial works moving from variation to variation. The paintings tend to engage most with the drawing elements of shape and line, and painting qualities of color and painterly viscosity are underplayed, maybe just matter-of-fact. Circuit, 2015 (oil and wax on wood, 14″ x 14″ x 2″) is a good example to begin with. All of Cooke’s works here are on wooden panels with thick sides. Circuit is fundamentally a composition of a few black lines. They are structured within a panel that would be a square but the left side tilts slightly to the right.

Judy Cooke, Circuit, 2015 (oil and wax on wood, 14" x 14" x 2"), Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Judy Cooke, Circuit, 2015 (oil and wax on wood, 14″ x 14″ x 2″), Elizabeth Leach Gallery

The painter Robert Ryman said, “It seems that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure: if someone can receive pleasure from looking at paintings, then that’s the best thing that can happen.” For me, the pleasure in contemplating a painting like Circuit is partly in trying to understand how it works and perceiving   the decisions made by the painter (the other part of the pleasure is a mystery, and delight in seeing that someone thinks in a way that surprises me and that that surprise is convincing). In Circuit there is a basic rectilinear structure painted in black, and it is clear how that structure pushes against the edges. But there is also a big swooping arc extending from one straight line and crossing another. It makes no “rational” sense, but functions as a very restrained gesture, perhaps giving the work just enough dynamism to engage us.

In Circuit there are also a few incidents of linear elements extending from the face of the painting onto the thick sides of the panel. Surprisingly this works. This is a very difficult thing to do without descending into showy mannerism. Cooke makes it meaningful: What does it mean for the image to extend past the edge of the front plane and onto the side? What doesn’t extend and why? Somehow this painting leads me to think of Piet Mondrian. Mondrian’s horizontal and vertical lines are clearly extremely well thought out. But Mondrian was a painter and his lines are visibly painted—not clean. Similarly, Cooke’s lines demonstrate exactitude, but not labored precision. Why/how does Cooke’s line line start or stop? How is it painted? When is the line smooth and when is it rough? The painting leads the viewer to be engaged in those issues because it is clear that Cooke herself is engaged in those issues. I believe she means every inch of every line.

One might wonder why anyone would be interested in Cooke’s decisions (the title of the show is Choose), but similarly those who enjoy the bombast of football or basketball might wonder about that slow game of baseball. Cooke’s paintings are for those who enjoy the little things.

Judy Cooke, Nostalgia, 2014 (oil, pencil and wax on wood, 36" x 34" x 2")/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Judy Cooke, Nostalgia, 2014 (oil, pencil and wax on wood, 36″ x 34″ x 2″)/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

In contrast there are a couple standard rectangular paintings with a lot more going on (in  a conventional sense). Nostalgia, 2014 (oil, pencil and wax on wood, 36″ x 34″ x 2″), has several shapes, several colors, several divisions, and several ways of handling the medium, including a large area of scribbled pencil lines. However, again the main bold organizing device is a couple linear incidents hanging down from the top of the rectangle. The main line dangles—thin, thick, really thin, jog, jog, swoop. The other shapes and incidents key off those few linear incidents, but it is unclear in what order things were painted. Maybe the lines are painted in at last to tie the whole together, but it doesn’t seem like that. There’s a lot of virtuoso painting and drawing going on here, but it is not showy. That’s the intrigue of Cooke’s work: you can see she is in total command of all  the orchestra, but the music is very quiet.

Judy Cooke, Step-down, 2014, oil and wax on wood 13" x 14" x 2"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Judy Cooke, Step-down, 2014, oil and wax on wood 13″ x 14″ x 2″/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Judy Cooke, Form, 2015, oil and wax on wood 7" x 32" x 2"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Judy Cooke, Form, 2015, oil and wax on wood 7″ x 32″ x 2″/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

I became very aware of just how I was looking at the paintings. Two works are just natural wood grain panels with thinly painted white shapes on them. In Step-down, 2014 (oil and wax on wood 13″ x 14″ x 2″), a jagged white shape is contained at a tilt within a fat T-shaped panel. In Form, 2015 (oil and wax on wood 7″ x 32″ x 2″), an irregular rectilinear shape is placed centrally within a thin rectangle. But what got me was how the shape in Step-down related to the T-shape of the panel and the wood grain is just a background, but in Form the shape seems to be tied to the lines of the wood grain itself and the bounding rectangle is neutralized, just there.

Judy Cook, Ledge, 2014, oil, acrylic and wax on wood, 18" x 65" x 2"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Judy Cook, Ledge, 2014, oil, acrylic and wax on wood, 18″ x 65″ x 2″/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

One more observation, this time about the anomaly in the show, Ledge, 2014 (oil, acrylic and wax on wood, 18″ x 65″ x 2″). Here, a long skinny rectangular panel connects two small irregular rectilinear panels across their tops. This in itself is a strange looking invention, but strange is not uncommon these days. What intrigued me was the thin line that crosses the long connecting rectangle, angling upwards slightly as it moves left to right. It is not a straight line. It is slightly, very slightly crooked. It changes slightly in thickness/thinness as it travels. But again, everything about that line tells me that Cooke meant it, and I marvel at it as my eye travels along it.

Frank Stella said, “There are two problems in painting. One is to find out what painting is and the other is to find out how to make a painting. The first is learning something and the second is making something.” Cooke shows what painting is—or can be. And by looking at what she has made, we can learn something.

Judy Cooke’s “Choose” continues at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 NW 9th, through August 29.

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