Artists have always sought to exploit light as a powerful element in their works. Think of Vermeer’s windows or Rembrandt’s Danaë, visited by Zeus as a shower of golden light. Or the Impressionists’ broken brushwork, meant to simulate the way sunlight can dapple a meadow or pass across the façade of a cathedral at different times a day. But it’s only in recent years that artists have harnessed artificial means to their purposes in the form of neon tubes (Keith Sonnier) or fluorescent bulbs (Dan Flavin), or carved out an entire volcano for the quiet contemplation of natural light (James Turrell).
Michelle Cooke belongs to both older and newer traditions of working with light as a medium, but in her own way she is a more questing spirit than the three modern masters mentioned above. She has worked with glass, aluminum, feathers, brass, gemstones, and barbed wire, as well as the traditional mediums of graphite and oil paint. And in the course of a 40-year career, she has made exquisite drawings of pears, radically minimalist paintings, impossible-to-wear “armored clothing,” and installations comprising hundreds of glass slides.
The current exhibition at Bareiss Gallery offers a mini-overview of this artist’s restless pursuit to exploit the potential of light. Her “relief” sculptures composed of glass slides transform this humble staple of science labs everywhere into magical, ethereal compositions in which cast shadows account for much of the impact. Using nothing more than ink or graphite pencils—and though rigorously abstract—her drawings nonetheless conjure with the play of light and shadow in the natural world. And Kimono, only one of a series of fanciful and impractical garments Cooke has made over the years, is constructed of steel, plaster, and copper but when suspended in space appears to be nearly weightless, capturing the light across its lacelike surface.
The pandemic has not in any way slowed her passion for new ways of working with light, as she has turned to notebooks filled with drawings and working with ink pencils on copperplate. “When I come across a subject or material I find compelling, I ask myself how far I can push it,” the artist has said. “I’m trying to update all the time, to see if I can find a new skill to complicate my life.”