On the outside:
About ten years ago, soon after she had moved to Huddersfield, Liadin Cooke came across Branch Lane House. She only saw it from the outside, and even now has only seen it from the outside, but Branch Lane House, and its creator, Peter Stead, came to function as a kind of anchor and a beacon.
Huddersfield didn’t come easy to an artist who had lived in Dublin, New York and London. It felt enclosed both in terms of its physical environment, and in terms of its opportunities, and Branch Lane House offered a kind of promise that things could be different. The fact that it was designed by a local designer, but brought with it an international language, meant that it became important to Cooke, and stayed in her mind over the succeeding years.
When she was offered the chance to respond to works in the collection at Huddersfield Art Gallery, Cooke naturally thought of Stead. But it is clear, however, that Cooke has made Stead her own, rather than feeling obliged to study him. In the intervening years Cooke had been developing two other strands of work – one based on the spaces where she had lived, the other on sampling and samplers - and using the Stead material enabled her to combine these different interests in a way that was both opportune and deliberate.
Receiving digital images of the Stead archive and printing them out at home enabled Cooke to achieve a certain amount of distance from the primary material. Instead floor plans, or aerial views of models, emerged from her printer as hazy coloured sketches which had something in common with Cooke’s own watercolours of the houses where she had lived. A concerted effort to remember not only the floor plans of her different homes, but also the colours associated with those spaces, has led to a group of twenty four drawings, on show here. Another group, based on drawings of her father’s homes (even more distant, because her father left home when Cooke was a small child), has been rendered in embroidery by the Huddersfield Embroiderers Guild.
In some respects an architect’s archive has chimed with the artist’s interests: in floor plans, remembered spaces, the modernist’s arrangement of space. Thus her drawings seem to co-exist very nicely. But Cooke has gone a little further, in inserting her father’s spaces into one of Stead’s ground plans, and then even further, by converting two paintings by Mondrian into a kind of architectural model made in white felt.
In one way Cooke’s work is very human, very straightforward. It is about the act of remembering, about the importance of place, about presence and absence. In another way it is more complex; a fundamentally formal inter-play between 2D and 3D, floor and ground, colour and colourlessness. She turns these relationships on their head. And the most interesting point is that at which the two different levels intersect: where colour indicates the presence of memory; where the modernist floor plan becomes a homely shelf unit; where embroideries straddle a kind of no-man’s land between artist and maker, between place and non-place.
Although Cooke has been so strongly marked by seeing colour – her synaesthesia consists in remembering spaces in colours, or seeing words and even letters as coloured – she does not think of herself as a colourist. And indeed most of her early work was colourless, made in white and transparent materials. She has only begun to use colours as the intensity of her vision fades, and it seems that her work is balanced on this threshold, between the colour and the monochrome, the remembered and the forgotten.
I have written a lot recently about contemporary artists returning to the architecture of their early youth. In a way Cooke fits this formula; Stead’s houses were built at the time of her birth. But in fact Cooke differs from this widespread and current concern with the forms and meanings of utopian post-war modernism. Her work is much more private, and much more aligned to an act of retrieval; hard-won. Thus it might seem difficult to reconcile the determinedly internationalist concerns of Peter Stead and those of a displaced Irish artist, brought to West Yorkshire by accident. Moreover the way in which Cooke has sought to bridge the gap, seeking a kind of communalism in the work she has delegated to local embroiderers, is distinctly off-side.
Cooke’s work seems at once timid and bold, delicate and determined. Be her means ever so small, ever so restrained, she has nonetheless turned everything inside out. Berry Brow House is now inhabited by Cooke’s memories of her father’s homes. Mondrian’s paintings become an architectural plan of Stead’s Arkenley Lane House; paintings become architecture and vice versa. Modernism has been somehow neutralised, made to function in other ways and yet within its own terms. Here we see the way architecture is always a combination of the definite and the indefinite, the present and the past, of opportunities lost and gained. Cooke’s reading of Stead seems to bring his utopianism down to earth, capturing big ideas in smaller gestures.
Peter Stead’s small and unlikely oeuvre, grouped around Huddersfield, spoke to Liadin Cooke in a way that was clearly compelling. She had already made the connection before the invitation came her way. It is perhaps up to us to make sense of that conjunction, of why it spoke to her, and how it offered her a kind of comfort, as well as a way of breaking the rules.
Leeds, March 2010