The unseasonable seasons of Andrew Cooks

by Robert Nelson

As we climb into a world of higher temperatures and arid agricultural prospects, we are once again caused to think of the seasons with a sense of threat, where a summer is menacing because of its drought and deadly heat and the aches of winter test our optimism.

There was once a time when we used to live by the seasons, experiencing the first chill of autumn with knowledge and forethought, making us think parsimoniously of laying fuel in store for the winter to follow.  And during the winter, you would wear copious layers, managing your body heat with a judicious balance of clothing and exercise, heating tiny areas of your environment for those periods where your metabolic energy would not suffice against the freezing airs around you.

Nowadays, even in the hills of N.W. Connecticut where Andrew Cooks lives, we are relatively insulated from the corporal effects of the climate.  The car is warm in winter and cool in summer; the house can pump out either heat or cool by depressing a button; and meanwhile, the effect of the seasons has largely receded to a backdrop, nature’s changeable scene painting that reflects meteorological realities in exclusively visual ways, where the other sensual corollaries are industrially suppressed.

Actually, Cooks spends half his week in New York City, with its toasty-warm subways and eternal corporate life buzzing around relentlessly.  Business is not a seasonal affair.  Ironically, however, the business that Cooks has in New York City is highly seasonal, because university art-teaching continues to run its semesterized course and, once committed into that profession, you can measure the rhythms of the year by the duration of the semester rather than the temperature outside.

The recent paintings of Cooks are an evocative exploration of the seasons in the way that they operate in our consciousness beneath the industrial layers by which we suppress their effects.  The expected or predictable vista of colour—from the greens of spring, the tawny browns of summer, the reds and yellows of fall and the whites of the winter snows—is experienced by certain intermediaries.  One of these is a kind of calligraphic ribbon, part script, part arabesque and part gift-wrap, that runs around the field, tricking it out with temptation and implied packaging, as if the experience can be made sophisticated and sent to someone as a gesture of love.  More recently this has evolved into a script that hovers, making specific suggestions to the viewer. And another is a purely pictorial strategy: abstraction, that move away from the immediate circumstance, the conditions contingent upon the moment, to yield an implicit unity among all phenomena.

Both of these toy fatefully with the reality of the seasons.  Since the eighteenth century, the seasons have been handled with abstract tendencies, most notably in music, with famous examples from Vivaldi, Telemann and Haydn; but you could interpret all music in sonata or symphonic form as following the seasons, with their throbbing hot sections, minor slow movements and vivace to end.  Music, with its dubious powers of portraying realities, evokes the seasons in ways which seem strangely to unite them; for they are all melodious in reassuring patterns and all resolve themselves more or less upon the same key note or the respective minor.

Implicit in our experience of the seasons is the passing of time, the temporal nature of the world, of life. We live complicated lives in time; in the moment, planning endlessly for a future we believe is to come, but also in the past vis à vis memory. Cooks directs attention to this through his complex layering of paint and imagery, at once excavating and obfuscating.

The reality of the musicians playing in the chamber is also not entirely seasonal, because music is for comfortable halls and tables, where people can sit for a good while and not feel cold or oppressed by heat.  For a long time, we have standardized our conditions; and the great artistic conventions that represent experience extend this standardization through the abstract language of music.

Spookier still is the packaging of the seasons and the environment generally.  When planning a trip away, one of the first considerations is the season at the destination.  What will it be like when we arrive?  And by season, we mean not just the weather but the volume of tourists.  It makes a huge difference.  The impact of the holiday season on your experience of Venice, for example, will be enormous, meaning not just a different wardrobe but a completely different relation to the environment.  A large part of the time spent on la Serenissima would be devoted to avoiding the crowds.  You would have to plan each day to overcome the inclemencies of queues and choked dining in the piazza.

The seasons are big business; and in an age of climate change, they have now emerged as remarkably threatening.  In the Victorian Alps, the ski-lodges seem destined to perish, as the ski season contracts with global warming.  Sadly, this doom is poetic; because the global warming is caused, in part, by all the motor-cars that make the weekly pilgrimages to the ski-runs.  Likewise, all the privileged enthusiasts who take aeroplanes to Switzerland or Japan for skiing holidays are of course greatly larding the air with the dreaded CO2 that absorbs so much radiation and burdens the planet with catastrophic heat.

Never before have the seasons been under such pressure.  They are no longer something eternally recurrent, predictable, reliable, part of the inbuilt cosmic rhythms that logically mark our years and let us count the mortal progress of our life.  Their unseasonable swings are now a marker of ecological atrocity.  The seasons call for a new prophetic witness, one who recognizes that our heating of the buildings—to maintain summer temperatures in winter—is also ruining our winters, dispersing the rains, devastating the agriculture of dependent economies, to say nothing of the life of other species.

As with riding a pushbike year-in year-out, it is necessary for humanity to become reacquainted with the seasons, to reintroduce the exposure that we once had and even enjoyed.  We cannot so easily afford to run in denial of planetary realities, jacking up the thermostat in our increasingly large bourgeois living quarters during the winter and driving the temperature down in summer with even more energy-expensive means.  The seasons belong to our planet and are in fact beautiful, as you can experience so gorgeously in Cooks’ paintings.  They need to resume their place in our imagination from Vivaldi’s time.  Never before have we so needed an aesthetic esteem for these cosmic realities, lest we face a future of dismal unearthly seasons, unseasonably destructive and gloomy for summer and winter alike.


Robert Nelson is Associate Dean at Monash Art and Design and is art critic for The Age.