Exhibition essay for Treading Lightly - by Dr Louise R Mayhew Gatakers Artspace, Maryborough. 15/9/23-5/11/23.
Helle Cook: Treading Lightly Gatakers Artspace 15 September–5 November 2023
In Helle Cook’s works, delicate and translucent voids of colour fill the canvas. Greens shift into turquoise and again into blue. Lines trace permeable boundaries creating spaces both known and unfamiliar. I imagine myself within them, within their caves, cool and serene. Sweet wisps of yellow light suggest another world just beyond the edge of my gaze, warm and enlivening. Small spaces—slivers and cracks in the painted surface; the slimmest of liminal zones between layers of paint; interstitial locales amidst here and there—are especially pregnant for Cook. She gets the sense that perhaps this is where meaning lies.
As my eyes keep moving around these works, my mind continues to portal my body into their imaginary spaces, and my attention shifts to the question of temporality. I experience these spaces as eternal, entwined with deep time and also futuristic. Purple hues hint at alien landscapes just as the absence of human bodies suggests a time both before and beyond us.
Treading Lightly begins with and returns to the land. Cook developed this series of works as she completed an 8-day hike across K’gari (Fraser Island). Walking with her husband and a friend, everything they needed for sleep, safety and sustenance carried upon their backs, the artist fell into a different sense of time and place.
As an artist in the landscape, Cook follows in the footsteps of many. These includeRomanticist Caspar Friedrich David and his Wanderer above the Mist (1818), who surveys the majesty of German/Czech Mountains; Impressionists, such as Claude Monet, who took the new invention and possibilities of the paint tube along to seascapes, countrysides and burgeoning European cities to capture the changing light; and Symbolists, such as J. F. Willumsen, whose dazzling depiction of his wife inA Mountain Climber (1912) conveys his vitalist philosophy. More intentionally, Cook follows walking women, from Georgia O’Keefe to Simone de Beauvoir, who walked in order to reclaim space marked as masculine and to rethink the possibilities for human life. Within Cook’s walking and her paintings, the artist embodies and imagines a new relationship with the land: one of lightness and appreciation, one distinct from colonial-capitalism’s extractivist ethos of taking from the earth, land and sea.
While awed and persevering; rejuvenated in mind, bodyand spirit; Cook carried her silk paintings across the island. Looking for places to temporarily hang these works focused her gaze and attention. In turn, the photographs of her textiles in the landscape attune our vision to diverse elements of the environment. Notice, for example, how Cook’s painting within K’gari Treading Lightly 6 (2021) creates a vessel for the glowing sun, golden yellows and melting oranges collect within its folds. In number 9 from the same series, Cook’s twinned textiles emphasise the bold verticality and horizontality of the island, as etched out by a lone tree and the repeating lines of lakes’ edge, sand bed and gentle hilltop. Number 4’s billowing shape by contrast highlights the often overlooked but nevertheless ever-present movement of the environment, the rush of wind and gentle dappling, rippling of water.
As Cook shares, her creative practice is intentionally cyclical. Her paintings inform her time in nature. In turn, her time in nature informs her paintings. Back in the studio, Cook translates the feeling of being outdoors into her work. Standing before the canvas she is at once within the present moment and cycling through embodied feelings, memories and emotions. Cook describes it wonderfully as a meditative struggle: vulnerable yet alert and awakened to sensations. Moreover, Cook’s temporal expansion across the ancient and the yet-to-come works in parallel with her creative process, which allows for both the chance and spontaneity of her materials and is simultaneously deliberate and careful. Drawing our gaze back to the surface of her works, we see traces of the artist in her sweeping strokes and carefully drawn lines.
Cook’s resulting works are imaginary locations informed by real places. In particular, the horizontal line that demarcates the bottom third of her oil paintings replicates the horizon line of K’gari’s many internal waterways. Following her life in Denmark, Cook finds she is always looking beyond this limit of perception to elsewhere, to home. Her use of piercing ultramarine blues pays homage to the distinct light and distant skies of Scandinavia. Reversing this relationship of place and thought, Cook painted her Impressions from Afar series while visiting her parent’s Denmark summer house and thinking back to Australia’s shores. This more intimate series is delightfully playful and expressive. Cook’s lines dance with surety and lightness across the page. Blocks of colour balance expertly between abstraction and figuration.
In the gallery, Cook shares an immersive world of tactile textures, ethereal projected light and new evocative experimentations with porcelain. I imagine in the latter Cook shifting her expansive gaze from K’gari’s sky and ground to the ghostly white trunks of dead and dying trees. Cook offers these works as vital testaments to the enduring beauty and restorative power of nature. Within the gentle breeze of her hanging silks and elusive shifting light that carries across her photographs and painted surfaces, she hopes to conceptually transport us back to these open spaces and in turn to foster our real-life ventures away from everyday life and into the natural world. Honouring the Butchella people and their message for visitors to K’gari, she finally asks that we tread lightly in these future walks.
Exhibition Essay for Community of Light exhibition, Hub Gallery - Caboolture Regional Art Gallery 2020 - written by Carrie McCarty.
Community of Light - Helle Cook
It is hard for Australians to appreciate the precious commodity daylight can be. Being almost permanently sundrenched across the continent, it’s easy to take our weather for granted. Days when the sun is not a dazzling, stinging, fireball high above us are rare. But for much of Europe, light is special and treasured - a source of true ecstasy during long winters and short days. When the first hints of warm weather bursts through, the change in energy is palpable. Summer’s long days are celebrated with gusto, a source of true joy after the interminable gloom of winter. It is easy to get lost in the almost reverential luminosity of Helle Cook’s works. Vaguely recognisable forms dissolve into evocations of light and space too quickly to be recognised. Soft and fluid, they capture the ephemerality of nature - from dawn through to twilight, from Minjerribah to the Nordic Sea. Increasingly, Cook’s painterly depictions of light have become sensory responses to the environment through the prism of the migrant experience, reflecting the tension of living between worlds. The gentle movement of floating linen set against the tautness of stretched canvas captures the transitioning landscapes as she travels between Australia, her native Denmark, and beyond. Community of Light is Cook’s exploration of a desire to be more present, more critically aware, of her surroundings and the sensations they stir within. In physically enveloping us in her installation, she encourages us to seek that sensory awareness too.
Written by Carrie McCarthy aka Cultural Flanerie, March 2020
Exhibition Essay for Suspended Light exhibition, QCA Galleries 2019 - by Cassandra Lehman
Suspended Light Helle Cook
Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness, and truth presupposes error. It is these mingled opposites that people our life, which make it pungent, intoxicating. We only exist in terms of this conflict, in the zone where black and white clash. Louis Aragon, “Paris Peasant” [LePaysan de Paris1926]
There is a difference between looking and seeing, in understanding how to see and what you see, through cultured eyes.
Unlike in Australia, where we are seemingly unaware of how the light differs from the rest of the world and take for granted the harshness and extremes in contrast, In Denmark, light is often referred to in conversation. There is a word in Danish Lysindfald, which loosely translates as light as it falls and as travels through exterior and interior space, light as it moves through and is broken apart by the translucent and reflective matter through which it passes.
For Helle Cook, a Dane residing in Australia, the qualities of light entering into a space and it’s crossing of the threshold from outside to inside act as a metaphor for liminality and the ambiguity of belonging and disconnect, living between two separate cultures and countries. For Cook, living in a state of perpetual duality, one cannot help but make constant subtle and subliminal comparisons. These comparisons are manifest in her work as observation rather than analysis, resulting in ambiguities of form and colour.
Preparatory sketches are loose and non figurative, minimal and restricted only to line. Linear references to architecture, home, house, building and structure although lacking solidity, are penetrable and fluid. Colours are then overwritten and added onto the canvas. They are suggested and followed loosely as the working itself is intuitive.
Memory, intuition and meditation come into play as Cook seeks to find a certain balance in disquiet, as representative of a momentary, restful space. For Cook, perception and the embodiment of visual sensation are altered by the magical entrance and interaction with light as it transitions and permeates both exterior and interior space. Atmospheric mood, a sense of cosiness and enlivenment is created with light and illumination.
Her palette traverses the subtle tonalities and hues of Nordic blue in contrast with warmer and more severe shades, drawn from her observations of the qualities of light as it falls in Australia. Equally, the work rests in between the figurative and the unformed, representative of unanswered questions, relating to the meditative process of making, of channeling intuitively into the work, to encapsulate the entity, spirit and essence of the light, and that which is created by light.
Light is a sensation, a metaphor. Light carries heat and energy and perhaps something else, an element of everything it passes through and falls upon.
Written by Cassandra Lehman 2019
Exhibition Essay for Notion of Home: 2017. 'Betwixt and Between' - by Marisa Georgiou
---Betwixt and Between--- In general understanding, the term ‘liminal’ refers to the ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a ritual. It is a term for the threshold between the way one previously structured their identity, time, and community, and a new way once the ritual completes. In contemporary sociology, the term liminality has become used as “a prism through which to understand transformations in the contemporary world”. It captures in-between situations and conditions characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty about the continuity of tradition and future outcomes.
It is clear that migration is, in part, a liminal experience: a dreamlike state of cultural transformation and disruption. The liminal stage is arguably one of the most dynamic and challenging conditions of the migration process, and the concept of liminality is being re-introduced and re-contextualised as foundational in understanding cultural shifts within expanding globalisation.
In Notion of Home, Helle Cook uses painting processes to investigate this intermediate period of her migration from Denmark to Australia. Her practice demonstrates liminality in migration to be a temporal state which fluctuates and slowly fades, but never entirely resolves. As with Salvador Dali’s melting clocks, the fluidity in these works depicts time as non-linear; rather, they present experiences and issues that come with remembering them: questions of perception, memory and identity. In this way, her work typifies the sensation of leaving home, and the grapple with memory that follows… as time is rendered fluid, memories become ambiguous, unstructured, and have connections drawn between them in hindsight.
The laws of gravity and logic also do not apply in such transitional works. Shifting between abstraction and figuration, they gauge the sudden interruption, existential unease, and the disorientation of the migration process through the subtle transmission of codes, symbols and structures with uncertain outcomes. This cultural translation of meaning is described as occurring in a “Third Space” in influential theories by Homi Bhabha. Third Space is a course of interpretation in which cultural symbols are not attached to their origins, and so can be appropriated, re-historicized and read anew. Meaning is unfixed. He states: “we should remember that it is the ‘inter’ – the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the inbetween space - that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.”
As such, through allowing the painting medium agency in the process, Cook takes on a slow and intuitive method where the works can drive their own progress without a predetermined outcome; she allows for this Third Space. One is reminded of the surrealists, who sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind by the irrational juxtaposition of images and symbols. Bringing with her cultural concepts of hygge, she creates sanctuary to explore this space through the process of creating an image. Similarly, considered design aesthetics, something that Cook views as integral to being Danish, are set against ‘chance’. It is evidently a therapeutic approach; a means of self-exploration- one can see landscapes, creatures, cultural objects and design, with pathways, like neurons, making connections both within the painting and in dialogue with others around. It is an investigative process, and though the works are somewhat resolved pictorially, they remain unresolved in their intention.
This curiosity in the unconscious can be read in the work, but also invites the viewer. The result of such works is that they are emphatically non-prescriptive and evocative. By placing the viewer in a surreal space, one allows them to make their own connections and interpretations, taking into consideration the way “unresolved” or “undetermined” elements can create potential for new relationships to be formed. Perhaps the viewer has also experienced liminality; are they an outsider? The dissolution of order during liminality creates a malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established. Leaving spaces for contradiction, hybridity, fluidity and transition are fundamental in understanding the sensations of migration. In the experience, one does not find themselves splitting the world into neat binaries, but find themselves in an in-between state, the remainder, or the dream, that is essential in constructing culture in an increasingly globalised condition.