by JANET McKENZIE
From my own Australian perspective, this landscape represents centuries of human presence: farming, building and crafting. Here, the cycles of nature are absorbed into quotidian life; in the summer, there are just two to three hours of dark, prompting outdoor activity of all kinds. This is in contrast to the winter regime; limited as it is by dark descending at 3.30 in the afternoon. In the short winter days, those activities associated with traditional craft – weaving, knitting and the making and mending of utensils – are embraced.
Rural Scots accept such extremes with matter-of-factness, and, in Cocker’s sculpture, these attitudes are reflected in the sense of a normality that springs from making objects and finding symbolic threads to link the physical and spiritual aspects of life. Symbolic sculptures made from local materials and a pragmatic use of traditional craftsmanship evoke the inherent ambiguity, dichotomy even, of Scottish culture incorporating at once magic, folklore, and the impact of John Knox and Calvin’s work ethic. Fast Landscapes assert the language of the elements: wind, the sea, a notion of the cycles of life and eternity. They also exude the movement one experiences listening to music and sometimes the dynamism of Futurist painting. Cocker’s abstract sculpture hints at meaning but is never explicit.
Entering Cocker’s studio, the sheer volume of work stands out: small sculptures in rows, final pieces on plinths, boxed constructions and framed works on the walls. Conceptual in character, they are firmly based in traditional craftsmanship. Many works are in progress: drawings, diagrams, maquettes for larger works, thousands in all. Cocker’s sculpture in its multifarious forms is very much of the place: the Perthshire landscape where he grew up and the Coupar Angus landscape where he now lives, and where his wife’s family have long farmed, is captured in the undulation of forms, the juxtaposition of shapes that echo the hills and more distant mountains, and the use of materials evoke the severe climate and spirit of place. Although the landscape of Scotland finds form in Cocker’s works, it no longer does so in a conscious or specific way. National identity, he says, has considerably less meaning for him now than it did when he was a young artist.
Two strands characterise Cocker’s work since he gave up teaching at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen: public commissions with numerous maquettes and fully worked proposals; and his own creative practice underpinned by his prolific A3 sketchbook drawings. In drawing, Cocker finds respite from the hands-on making, primarily in wood, which can be slow and sometimes difficult. Sketchbook drawing also offers a directness and freedom that is in contrast to sculpture and employs a wide range of materials: marker pens, pencils, highlighters, pen and ink, house paint. Each page combines thick and thin lines, dotted lines and text: paragraphs, single words, lists, graffiti-like scrawl, poems and haiku. He explains: “I like the provisional nature of the process and the way ideas multiply themselves. I like the fact that, in contrast to making sculpture, chance and order make equal contributions. I enjoy the unimportance of it … there is little investment in terms of time, material, effort or tension, so it doesn’t matter whether an idea or image works or not. I value the irresponsibility endemic to drawing as I use it.”
The works exhibited at the Tatha Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Beginnings, were a well-chosen taster of Cocker’s prodigious practice. I spoke to Cocker at his Lundie studio.
Janet McKenzie: I’m struck by the sheer volume and diversity of different woods and how the specificity of the raw material determines so much of the final product. How did your practice develop?
Doug Cocker: Since the 70s, my principal material of choice in the studio has been wood. For me, in a rural situation, it has always been easy to access, is comparatively cheap and, above all, it allows for a reasonably fast realisation of ideas. There is also the fact that, of all materials, it’s the one that seems to invite experimentation the most. I enjoy also the subtleties and differences: the smells, durability, workability, behaviour through time, and so on. Inevitably, when I moved to the decent-sized place I have now, I had to make some sort of decision about how much fixed equipment I would install. I consciously kept it to a minimum, for which I have no regrets.
JMcK: Traditional craft skills underpin your work. Where did you train?
DC: I trained at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee from 1963-68. When I was a student, there was no woodworking facility available within the sculpture department. I picked up the skills later when I came to teach in an art school.
JMcK: In the 70s, you exhibited with Richard Long and Hamish Fulton when Minimalism, Land Art and the use of natural materials were all being championed. How did those movements and ideas impact on your career as an artist?
DC: I was teaching at the art school in Northampton in the 70s and participating in shows such as Nature as Material, On Site at the Arnolfini and the first British Art Show. My work was land-based and reflected the experimental stance I had taken with tools, materials and context. The kind of organic minimalism (for want of a better term) that characterised my output was common, in different ways, to other young sculptors such as John Cobb, David Nash or Dave King. My practice has continued to be shaped by a natural impulse to investigate the potential of materials. But preoccupations change. Over the past 15 months or so, I have been almost exclusively engaged with collage and photomontage: most days, I review and consider my sculpture, but I have made virtually no sculpture in that time.
JMcK: Your work departs from very many sculptors in the present art scene because you make everything yourself. How does the relationship with the materials you work with affect the final product? How do working methods over a lifetime establish a particular aesthetic, or sensibility instilled in the works?
DC: This is not entirely true. Of the 40-odd public commissions I’ve undertaken, probably over half have involved subcontracting fabrication work in a range of materials. However, it’s fair to say that with speculative studio work (where no client or contract is involved), I am the maker all the way through. This is the only way for several reasons. First, very few of the works I make have a fixed, a priori design. There are elements of change or improvisation that are unique to me, and are invariably determined by discoveries made during the working process. I suppose the aesthetic that might come out of this is a kind of visual conviction that reflects a unique route taken? I don’t know. It’s not something that I have given much thought to.Second, assistants cost money. I only ever have any money when I work on a commission with a budget. Although I sell occasionally, my studio work has never really had much commercial viability. So where is the sense in paying someone else to have the fun I could be having myself?
JMcK: Your sketchbooks are practically bursting with notations, plans, and diagrams. There is a lot going on and they are aesthetically very strong and impressive. Can you explain the way you work at this stage?
DC: Drawing, for me, is mostly speculation. It’s an activity that runs parallel to making, but provides opportunity to express thoughts, feelings and ideas in a spontaneous way that’s impossible using the more measured procedures involved in making sculpture. Most of my drawings are made in A3 sketchbooks – testbeds for ideas and processes, but also an important memory store. Over recent years, the contents of these books has come to far outstrip my sculpture output, and the drawings and notes have come to be a thing in themselves for me.
Periodically, I like to check back through them to see whether some newly tried drawing process or idea still has some potential future promise … but mostly I love revisiting the books for the smells and the visceral qualities of, say, 1950s linseed or stop-out or gloss paint or sumi ink. Sometimes a work will come out of notations or diagrams in the book. If it does, and it warrants pursuing, it will tend to take on a dynamic of its own with little or no reference back to the book.
JMcK: You include a lot of text in your sketchbooks. Can you explain its role?
DC: Sometimes the text is notation for making – referring to scale, materials, colour, working procedure or any other aspect that my memory is likely to let me down on. Other times, it’s less rational and more of a linguistic riff that parallels the imagery … sometimes humorous or esoteric or highly personal and usually irresponsible. With the latter, there is no real role. It has simply become a habit for me to play with aspects of writing in much the same way as I play with visualised form.
JMcK: The group exhibition at the new Tatha Gallery in Newport-on-Tay is showing one of your Wall Dance sculptures. Can you explain the formal considerations when you make works such as this?
DC: The Wall Dance sculptures evolved in much the same way as did other series of works, such as Geography or Diaspora. That is, they all ultimately became series of works because one piece was insufficient to hold the full range of ideas I wanted to develop within the configuration. With Wall Dances, the broad compositional notion underpinning the construction is a back plate (usually curved), which houses a cluster of related forms (probably six to eight in number). The whole configuration projects from the wall.
The main aim was to generate a sense of movement and interrelated dynamics between, and among, the forms and the spaces between them and the wall. These were particularly testing things to work on as they require simultaneous engagement with so many elements: colour, texture, tone, both real and applied, solid, space, proportion, and so on, all within, not an image, but an object. I completed 18 of these, some tonal and others using a fuller palette, and have roughly as many again as yet unfinished. I may re-engage.
JMcK: Boxed sculptures form an important part of your oeuvreand they are at once closed, magical and stage-like. They can be menacing and, in the case of Coda (1989) or Gate ( 2012), enigmatic.
DC: I have made boxed works intermittently since the early 70s, though I am conscious now of lacking the care and patience needed in their making. With age has come an increasing desire to explore new territories, new ways of making. So it’s a question of just how much time there is and what my priorities are.
• Beginnings is at the Tatha Gallery, Newport-on-Tay, Fife, 25 April – 5 June 2014.