B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
JAMES COOK'S PAINTINGS are the star of a show called Arizona up at the Davis Dominguez Gallery, but he is not an artist who is confined to anything so small as a state. In fact, Cook manages to inhabit two art worlds.
Cook takes for his subject the lavish landscape of Arizona. The state's craggy blue-and-beige mountains, vast sweeps of yellow scrubland and gloriously variegated winter skies in cerulean and gray are given an homage in his big oils on canvas. He delights in painting a shaft of light breaking over a butte ("Verde Breaks #2"), in capturing a creek raging down from the mountains ("Verde Breaks"), in rendering the long distances of the West ("Empire #2"). These things that he paints so lovingly ordinarily would put him in the category of western realist landscape painter. But that label doesn't begin to contain him.
Cook's passionate, exuberant style of painting puts his work at a polar opposite of the careful draftsmanship so prized by the western realist. His paint is thick and luxurious, glistening on the canvas like fresh butter. He slashes it onto the surface in such wild, furious strokes that the writhing shapes of his pigments are as important to the painting as all those cloudy skies and sentinel saguaros. When you stand up close to the works, you can't see the forest for the paint. Those wild color abstractions, reverberating in blue-grays and greens and pinks and beiges, put Cook firmly in the camp of the abstract expressionists.
Somehow Cook manages to please both factions. His paintings are expensive--gallery co-owner Candace Davis says that at fees ranging from $800 to $14,000, he commands the highest prices of all their gallery artists--and he sells well in such western-art watering holes as Sun Valley, Idaho. Not all of his paintings escape the cornball pitfalls of his subject. Some of those monumental rushing rivers are a little over the top. And he goes in the opposite direction in a couple of beautiful small works, "Shovel #2" and "Bear Canyon #1." In these paintings, some of the best in this big show of 21 pieces, the landscape virtually disappears, becoming just a pretext for vigorous explorations of blue, beige, yellow and green.
What also distinguishes Cook from the western realists is his fascination for the built landscape. Hints of industrialization rarely seep into conventional western painting, but Cook positively delights in the geometric grid that gigantic factories and smokestacks impose upon the rolling land. "Morenci #2" is a mesmerizing mix of huge pipes and tailings and buildings, all set at rigid diagonals and right angles and sharp perpendiculars to the organic shapes of the mountains and clouds in the distance.
A Tucsonan who had the one-person Stonewall show at the Tucson Museum of Art a few seasons back, Cook doesn't make any particular commentary on the ravages of industry or even on the need to save the land he clearly cherishes. But his paintings, which consciously argue for the beauty of "pure art," also bring us back around to the beauty of this West.
Arizona, a show of paintings by James Cook and bronze sculptures by Mark Rossi, continues through January 20 at Davis Dominguez Gallery, 6812 N. Oracle Road. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information call 297-1427.
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