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Kulama - Timothy Cook

This is a piece I wrote in 2014 on the work of Timothy Cook and yet it still holds true to how I respond to his paintings.

The Dutch artist Bram Van Velde wrote:

When I approach a canvas I encounter silence. Painting is life. Life is not in the visible.


Van Velde’s words intimate that the painted surface needs to take on a life, or create one. That is to say, a life that is not a mere illustration of an idea or belief, a life that becomes an environment to exist in.


Timothy Cook’s exhibition Kulama at Aboriginal & Pacific Art in the Dank Street gallery complex provides the viewer with just that, a world of silence, a painted surface of invisible life. These works hold one in a sense of awe, a sense of being in or witness to a world much vaster than oneself. This is not a disempowering experience by any measure but rather the opposite; one feels charged with a sense of personal power and yet aware that one is such a small part of this vastness. It’s interesting then to note that this show is entitled Kulama, the coming of age ceremony for young males. A time of realising one’s power and more so, realising one’s responsibilities to this power. This is a point of reference that Cook has worked with in many of his earlier exhibitions but never so strong as in this present body of paintings.


The essence of Tiwi tradition is still an integral part of Cook’s work and there is much one could provide to background this tradition but Cook’s works speak for themselves on both a traditional and contemporary platform. They have an undeniable power that engages you in a world of sensation, an energetic dialogue. Like the late Kitty Kantilla, also from Melville Island, Cook’s works come out to you and you find yourself in them and suddenly that creative airspace between viewer and painting no longer exists.

Held in this vital space that somehow encompasses past, present and future one is aware of an enormity that feels known and one wants for nothing. There is no need for the paintings to be explained, their story verbalised. Engaging with these works one feels an impending encounter with a sense of truth, an absolute.


In terms of construction Cook’s use of traditional ochre and in particular his use of white give the works a recognisable individuality. This is not to say they are formulaic in any sense. Cook’s use of white acts to ignite the strong compositional elements already in place and lift the works out of any notion of design, empowering them in an almost otherworldly sense. With a strong sense of visual punctuation the white heightens both positive and negative space, thereby disarming any sense of rigid construction. Although firmly founded in a traditional sense of design there is a striking visual edginess to these compositions that makes them stand out and different to mere pattern making. The paintings resonate from a far deeper primal source and once one has engaged with these worlds the visual components seem to loose their dominance, and one experiences the world that they create or glimpse at.


Another noteworthy constructive feature in Cook’s work is his use of traditional dot markings. In many of his earlier works these form a very dynamic compositional presence but in this latest show they serve as a vibrant pictorial plane that gives the work a depth and acts as a platform for other compositional features to speak from. In this way one feels suspended in Cook’s painted surface and sense that these works are environments of the spirit and not so much the land as such. These compositions are not subject matter. One doesn’t look at the forms to find literal meaning. Rather they are components of a catalytic surface that takes the viewer within the painted world where they become a witness.


Cook’s work is charged with many iconic forms such as crosses and concentric circles and it would be easy to parallel the composition of these works with circles such as is seen forming around the moon at the final stages of the wet season when the Kulama ceremony takes place as well as those that represent the Kulami circle or ceremonial dancing ground. Although these concentric circles are icons of Tiwi spiritual belief, within the finished works these elements become part of an alchemic resonance if you like that feels universal in nature and I believe this is what art needs to achieve, lifting itself out of subject matter.


The assembly of Cook’s paintings is rendered with what feels like a tentative or possibly calculated delivery. These are not paintings made from layer upon layer of paint. Rather they have a striking visual sense of immediacy. This serves visually to only heighten the honesty of these works. It is this sense of honesty, rare in the art world at large, that all humans recognise in each other on some level and it is this honesty that enables a painting to truly communicate, to work beyond the pursuit of just mark making or ideas.


Cook’s works can be seen as imprints of a process of intimate honesty, showing where he is, what direction he is pointing in and what he is wrestling with.

These are not self-conscious paintings on any level. Rather they invite one into a very unique world of the sensate and they change one’s awareness of self and place. It is this ability of an artwork to leave its imprint that is a hallmark of all great art.


Many years ago on visiting the Art Gallery of NSW I came across the Pukumani Poles. These are grave posts or tutini in local Tiwi language and have great spiritual significance with Tiwi culture. At that time they were positioned in a glass annex off the aboriginal section of the gallery and were quite isolated from the other indigenous exhibits. Standing with these poles one was very aware of a definite presence, unspoken and of a primal source and power. This is the same feeling one gets in front of Cook’s new works in this present show.

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