Arts June 28, 2016

Capturing the Light

Artist James Cook Brings a Unique Sensibility to Painting the Natural World

Growing up in the Midwest’s Flint Hills, 10,000 square miles of tallgrass prairie spanning Kansas and Oklahoma, artist James Cook had few formal resources for cultivating his burgeoning creativity. But even at an early age, Cook was taken by the flaxen light that reflected on his stark surroundings, honing his eye for the natural geometries that would become a hallmark of his landscape painting.

While anchored in Arizona for the past 40 years, Cook has emerged as one of Idaho’s great visual documentarians. His large-scale oil-on-canvas works, represented in Ketchum by Gail Severn Gallery, depict the Wood River Valley’s most mesmerizing settings, from the fly-fishing mecca of Silver Creek to the cool tranquility of Alturas Lake.

“Nature always gives you something new,” Cook explained from his home in Tucson, where he works when not traveling across the United States and around the world with his plein-air easel. But, he added, “I’m not interested in painting the same subjects over and over again. To be the poet of Silver Creek? I couldn’t do that.”

Known in this region for his lively landscapes, Cook is also an accomplished urban anthropologist of sorts, shifting his vantage from the striated sunsets of the Southwest and the white-tipped peaks of the Rockies to the populated cubicles of a sleek high-rise in Manhattan or an empty sidewalk in Chicago.

Such contrasts suggest a polarity in Cook’s oeuvre, but for the artist—who descends from a line of what he called “Sunday painters,” including his grandfather and several uncles—where his land- and cityscapes converge is their form. “I’m trying to broaden ideas about what painting can do,” he said before revealing that a period of stagnation in the late 80s, when he felt boxed in by commercial expectations from his then-New York gallery, resulted in a freeing of his brush to “work more physically with the paint and to accept a certain level of chance and invention.”

Cook also credits his formal forebears, such as Monet’s lush water lilies, for this stylistic loosening. It is his distinctive take on Impressionism, along with influences from the brash strokes of Abstract Expressionists like de Kooning, that have positioned Cook outside the canon of American plein-air traditionalists. An industrious spirit—Cook arrives at his studio every day at 9 a.m. and concludes “when the light fades at five”—and few distractions (the one-time professor gave up teaching early in his career) allow him to produce an especially robust body of work.

Even so, waiting lists for his paintings are not uncommon, said Shannon Doley, an associate at Gail Severn. Clients are drawn to the familiarity of his subjects, from Fourth of July Creek to the Sawtooth range, which “connects them to his work very viscerally,” said Doley, who has placed a number of his pieces with collectors in the Wood River Valley. Severn, who first invited Cook to show at her gallery in 1991, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing not only the vibrancy of his impasto, but the myriad ways of perceiving it. Said Severn: “Close to the surface, one is drawn into the rich texture, but as one moves farther away, they discern a more recognizable reality dictated by his technical skills.”

Cook’s virtuoso use of color produces a kind of trompe l’oeil, an effect that fellow Gail Severn artist and friend Theodore Waddell admitted has had lasting impact on his own work. “I learn from everything he does,” said Waddell, who hosted Cook to paint at his studio on Deer Creek Road when he was recovering from shoulder surgery a decade ago. “You think, What is that? The subject moves between being aspens and something else. Jim has an ability to manipulate color, to translate anything you think might be green into something that’s not really green.”

This mutability may be traced to Cook’s exposure to the Beatniks who passed through Wichita and later migrated to Arizona when he was in his early 20s. Crossing paths with the Kansas-born assemblage artist Bruce Conner and the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Cook absorbed their openness to creative cross-pollination, even if the furthest he’s ever strayed from the visual arts is sculpture. “I didn’t know it at the time—I just thought they were a bunch of crazy guys,” Cook recalled with a laugh, “but they had both a broad cultural impact and a significant personal influence on me.”

For his latest series, on display at Gail Severn last February, Cook gravitated towards new techniques and compositions. In addition to works on paper, one sign of Cook’s shifting tides was a piece he described as “drawing in oil paint.” Said Cook: “I left a lot of naked canvas. It was intended as a radical departure.”

Upon his return to the Wood River Valley this summer, Cook plans to continue traveling down this unknown path. “There was something going on there besides the depiction of the landscape, something to do with the material and the energy of the painting,” he said. “I’m still pursuing that and expect I will be for a long time.”

This article appears in the Summer 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.