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Exhibition text by writer Martin Herbert to accompany 2022 solo show SILVER LININGS, at PEER, London.


Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you arrive at Marcus Cope’s painting In the Blackness of the Night (2022) with no knowledge of what led him to paint it. Here’s what you might nevertheless recognise, in that contextual void: struggle, conflict. The setting is a bedroom after dark – a child’s bedroom, judging from the patterned wallpaper, though its repeated motif of a wrestling pair is an odd one, as if what’s going on in the room has altered the space itself, or the memory of it. For on the bed, before some curtains, a nebulous nightmare is unfolding. A half-obscured animal is on top of two skinny-limbed children tangled in bedclothes, violently smothering them; the painting disturbs both via what we can see and what we can’t. Weird cerulean shapes obliterate part of the aggressive creature in turn, as does a burst of flames. On the wallpaper, as your eyes adapt to the dark and steer away from the unfolding central chaos, other images manifest. Some resemble children’s illustrations, one looks like a proper painting, others are obscure. Speckling the view of the room are little black and yellow blotches, like psychedelic mould; this feels like the past, a dredged and mottled memory, one both incomplete – patched with other stuff – and insistent, active in the present.

Cope paints from his own experience, or rather uses painting as a way of mediating and giving appropriate form to the texture of memory. In the Blackness…, which takes its title from a troubled but soothing Cat Stevens song, is a flickering glimpse of childhood under an alcoholic, abusive father whom the son conceived to himself in animalistic terms (a ‘fat pig’), and one might speculate that in a sense painting such a scene is a way of exorcising it. Except that, contrariwise, it also gives a difficult past permanent form, crystallising trauma in a single image. And in taking its place within the world it becomes, in turn, a thing for viewers to navigate, and expands into something larger as it meets their own life experience; a problem shared. Further, the painting takes its place in the emotional gamut that constitutes Cope’s art per se: that is, an honesty-laden attempt to funnel life lived, even in troubling registers like base human cruelty, into art, perhaps out of some compulsion to face the past but also as an act of empathy with the observer, who surely has their own, if differently shaped, scars.  

You don’t, for example, easily get through this world without confronting mortality, and for all its sadness, you’d miss something if you did. The Days Before Death (2022) might scan differently with another title, but this one inevitably inflects it, solemnifying Cope’s dreamlike, near-uncanny composition. Again, let’s say you know nothing of the painting’s genesis, its background; there are still things here that you can name, and angular relationships between them to parse. Working upward from a bright, tropical-looking oceanside view fronted by coloured decorative rocks and an Easter Island-like head, things swiftly turn both apocalyptic and beautiful: smoke billowing from a fire beside a palm tree blooms into a vision of a vast horse, and a shadowy second beast, in rippling water, under a yellow sunset sky. There is, again, a factual supplement that underwrites the imagery here. Cope drew on memories of his grandmother, on her deathbed, saying she looked forward to swimming again, and the fact that she lived near a chalk horse engraved into the landscape. (Somewhere in the horse, says Cope, is her face.) These anecdotes, though, are not the image, which enfolds them while becoming something else: an evocation of passage, destruction, transformation that functions, in its combination of nouns into something larger and more numinous than its parts, something that operates, in the eye and mind, less like narrative than poetics.  

Nor does Cope except himself from culpability – or, by extension, us. Loaf (2021) is a painting rippling with unease; not for the first time, Cope paints something unexpectedly large, in this case a sandfly. The storyline involves the artist, while living in Cyprus and sitting on a beach in February, mulling ending a longish relationship so that he could begin one with someone he’d recently fallen for. Amid that, he watched two sandflies mating on a loaf of bread, then took the besmirched foodstuff home and watched as an arrogant artist flatmate obliviously made a sandwich from it. The dynamics of this background speak of multidirectional human self-centredness, and some degree of humane remorse. But again, without context, Loaf already trades in ambient disquiet, condensing its storyline down to a binary: the oversized insect in its foreground against a cliffside view, and the comestible in the title. Just those two things in combination – giant insect, figured food – is a precise, inhabitable feeling-tone. What you might not get is the dark comedy that undergirds Loaf, its image of the ridiculously trivial, damaging creatures we can be.

Cope’s paintings here are in formal conversation with each other: there is a fair bit of reference to water, and, relatedly, a repeated compositional emphasis on above and below that can feel to semaphore consciousness and the unconscious, or present and past. There’s an undercutting, on occasion, of painting’s ability to convey ‘truth’. Another Lie Down (2022)at once suggests aquatic relaxation and the ‘lie’ that the boy, based on Cope-as-kid, can really float. Taken in strict terms, any painting – and particularly one that attempts to reconstruct the past – is arguably a ‘lie’ put down on canvas, although as Picasso said, art is a lie that tells the truth. Cope, given how much his art is edged with doubt, complicates that. The truth he’s telling, a meta one, is in part the difficulty of telling the truth, in local terms; but its knowingly imperfect transmission of his past arrives at its own set of larger truths. This is a radically imperfect world, and we are here to pass through its imperfections and our own, and while there’s plenty of suffering to go round, there is also humour, beauty, mystery, vaulting highs as well as deep lows: all the feels. That’s the covertly large ambit of Cope’s work, his desire to account unflinchingly for all this. To confront the vertiginously manifold ways that we experience being alive; to begin in personal specificity and expand to wherever the viewer stands.

Martin Herbert, 2022

Images courtesy Stephen White & Co.

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