The Pareidoliast

Scott Cook, Untitled, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Winnipeg musician and painter Scott Cook is a classic autodidact. A high-school dropout, he began teaching himself guitar when he was 18, eventually studying in England for six months with King Crimson founder Robert Fripp before returning to Winnipeg. There, he played with Stagmummer, a legendary local punk band, for all six years of its existence, and went on to start other groups, including Strapless, a three-person band that developed out of its predecessor, Strap. The “less” got added because the lead singer committed suicide. The naming logic is typical of Cook’s sardonic humour and his approach to both music and painting. “There’s no confines to what we do, there’s no straps keeping us down.”

He took up painting only two years ago, when he couldn’t play music while recovering from a hand operation. Initially he painted on flat river rocks and then proceeded to acrylic on canvas. “What I love most about painting is the loss of myself; when I’m in the zone I lose track of time. Music used to do that, now painting does.” This year he has made over 200 paintings. “I’m as obsessed with art now as I have been with anything in my life.”

Scott Cook, Untitled, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist.

His visual education has been enthusiastic but not systematic. He loved Tom Thomson as a kid, then van Gogh and Klimt. “Certain people have always affected me like a disease in my head,” he says in the all-or-nothing language he uses when talking about music and art. He has also been influenced by reading New World philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and the poet Charles Bukowski, “the man who saved my life.” What they taught him was to trust himself and to embrace change.

But the artist who has been most generative for him is the American illustrator Marshall Arisman, whose paintings of mildly horrific human and animal hybrids appealed to Cook’s own penchant for mixing and blending. Arisman also led to his discovery of Francis Bacon, “the guy I’d been searching for all my life.”

Scott Cook, Untitled, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist.

In his paintings Cook tends to pull off more paint than he leaves on. He has made his own tools, and trowels with combed teeth of different lengths or the corrugated side of a piece of cardboard. “I put the acrylic on and I scrape and bend and pull the paint off in layers. I like the way it looks.” Sometimes he simply gets what he wants. In a painting called God a squat, bulbous-headed figure holds a pair of planets like large balloons on strings against a purple background. “God is a little dumb marshmallow creature with the planets circling around him” is Cook’s explanation of the painting. But, for him, looking is also a way of finding the unintended content in a consciously rendered image. He relies on pareidolia, the tendency to see patterns in random data. But instead of seeing figures in clouds, he comes up with whistling snakes and lilliputs sitting on the shoulder and wrapped around the head of a red-faced figure. “I’ll look at what I’ve scraped away and I’ll see something in there, and then I might outline or accentuate it.”

Cook likes to work in series; in one, a single word is repeated—like “trust” behind a lamb wearing a shirt and tie—and, in another on DNA mutations, he conjoins large, patterned human heads and small animal bodies. The resulting images are equally decorative and diseased. “That’s the dichotomy I want. I like pretty colours on the outside, while the inside can be monstrous.” He had his first solo exhibition at Library Gallery in Winnipeg in January of this year. ❚