Doug Cocker's wall-mounted sculpture Diaspora (1995) achieves a magical sense of spatial freedom which is made all the more poignant by comparison with the drawings for the same work, contained as they are by their frames. The Plural (2008/9), a recently commissioned work for a London office building, is similarly wall-based, albeit the relationship is different. This work comprises seventy five individual pieces, and each piece is anchored to its own small shelf, with a sub-text of cast shadows creating an alternative dynamic. In each of these works, the wall plays a key role. In the first, it is akin to a dance floor, with its implicit invitation. In the second, the wall is essentially a support: it is static, fixed, secure.
What, then, are we to make of Geography(2008-2009), Cocker's latest work in his series of wall-mounted sculptures? Are these pieces really drawings in 3D? Or are they paintings freed from familiar constraints? Have we seen anything like them before? Well yes, maybe â€¦â€¦ In this respect, it is useful to look back to the publication Leaving Jericho which accompanied Cocker's exhibition (in partnership with Arthur Watson) at the John David Mooney Foundation in Chicago in 2003. Reproduced on pages 24 and 25 is a group of sixteen photographic images recorded in County Mayo and Malta, and titled â€˜Research Imagery' for the Mayo Suite and the Valletta Suite ( 2001/2002). The images are carefully selected details of built environments - sections of wall, a door, the side of a container perhaps, a ventilation grill, a suite of hinges: all inspirations familiar in their different ways to a Mark Boyle or a Philip Reeves. Although these fragments of everyday urban reality are no more than documentation, they do offer us a platform from which to view Geography.
Cocker may have returned to a more traditional understanding of the wall and its role vis-Ã -vis art, or he may be usurping territory normally the preserve of painting and drawing. Geography is full of allusion. So if we find a hint of Philip Guston here, or a flashback to Nouns of Europe(2006) there, across this richly vibrant work, we acknowledge that nothing is ever wasted in his studio, and his vocabulary of form - like any language - is richer for its dissonances. There is no questioning the magisterial way in which he handles his materials, be they chestnut, beech, ash, plywood, oak, pine, elm, yew, damson or chipboard with melamine. He can be sublime or provocatively playful. What is certain is that with Geography, the creator of Fast Landscapes and Horizon Pieces (2003) has given us a new kind of percussion.
Artists in this exhibition
In a sense, the individual pieces, formed with the hand of a craftsman and the eye of an artist, are a metaphor for Cocker's whole approach to creating sequences of work - each element is resolved in its own terms and yet performs a crucial and often pivotal role in relation to something outside itself. It is easy to overlook the understated panache that lies behind the manner in which Cocker can find magisterial balances of form, tone and - in his most recent pieces of wood construction - colour.
Over the last ten years Doug Cocker has found his own individual voice where he can, when appropriate, use his distinctive sculptural expression to address important contemporary social experience. Like the work of the best of his peers, such as Cragg and Woodrow, Cocker's sculpture is political in the broadest sense of the word. By that I mean that it is not escapist, esoteric or purely aesthetic, but aims to raise awareness of the underlying contradictions in late Twentieth century capitalist society. For example, in an earlier work of the mid-eighties Beneath the Screaming Eagle, the ultimate symbol of material status and security - the house, is enclosed from above by an encirling barrier that throwes a protective, but ominously imprisoning shadow on all below. In this very powerful piece, Cocker echoes the dire warnings of Noam Chomsky that we put our trust in false gods to secure us from our worst nightmares, only to find that they heighten our sense of insecurity and further imprison us in our increased fearful state. Many of these works also have a strong satirical edge to them. For example, the artist employs bathos to underline the vacuousness of much political rhetoric - where the visual and the verbal mock each other. This is most acutely observed in one of Cocker's major works, State of the Nation, where hollow chauvinism in underlined by the unstable rocking-horse base on which the classical temple of social order and national pride is precariously placed.
Drawing, for Cocker, is very close to the surrealist's practice of automatism, where the artist freely allows forms and images to body forth onto the page with little or no rational restraint or control. These spontaneous sketches are the testing ground where he rejects or begins to develop his ideas for possible sculptures. In the most convincing of Cocker's work this flexibility is continued right through to the finished piece and it's enigmatic title. The power of his most successful sculptures lies in their truly metamorhic nature, which keeps their shifting significance and allusive meaning continually open to interpretation.
He caught, don't ask me how, but ponder on it, the weather, in boxes black, rich as deepest night. Here the spikes of the nail-sharp rain, the dangerous zigzagging of lightening hurtling across the sky, the fleet-of-foot wisp-thin clouds, the layered mystery of the changing river. Confined, yet they move. Colourless, yet the beech wood is riotous. Silent, yet they sing the landsongs.