monica cook’s paintings are sumptuous, monstrous, stunning. the work transgresses all western conventions on the portrayal of food and of women (subjects which, it must be said, are often treated much the same in art cannon). the colours are rich and beautiful, they glow on the canvas; but instead of distant and jewel-like still lifes, cook instead creates works which ooze immediacy along with bodily fluids, almost to the point of invasiveness. the images make stomachs turn, they avert eyes; the act of looking at them more than once becomes a deliberate choice, an active engagement with the image and its subject matter.
in this way cook defuses the common dichotomy of object and objectifier that infects so many images of female bodies. cook’s nudes are not displayed, like the images in a recipe book, to be consumed with pleasure by a passing (male) onlooker. they curdle in the belly, revolt and fascinate, and are so much more than simply an acquired taste.
perhaps the most extraordinary achievement in cook’s work, from a visual-feminist perspective, is the way in which she uses subject matter that ought not, in and of itself, to be disgusting to the status quo. in fact it’s quite the opposite: images of food and of naked female bodies – and sometimes the two combined – adorn some of the most hallowed walls of the art world. they are, as it were, two of the most foolhardy subjects a painter could choose in order to elicit audience satisfaction with minimal effort (that is, after all, the beauty of the female body as a topic. it needn’t be extraordinary, just as long as there are visible breasts). but when combined – not in the sanitized manner of a 19th century exotic: a glowing bowl of fruit and a reclining woman, side by side but never touching – they become something quite different.
the process of eating has always been taboo for women. nobody wants to see it; the grotesqueries of mastication, or the mess of teeth, guts, runaway pulp. nobody wants to recognize the suggestion that, below those resolutely pallid skins, lurks raw flesh, intestines, bowels, cunts, and olfactory discharges. nobody wants, visualized, the way female bodies actually work. to think about it is to be sickened on socialized instinct. it’s like seeing what goes into making a sausage, only worse, because that you can laugh off once the evidence has been literally consumed. women are not so easy to dispatch. we necessarily linger and, thus, the mainstream is in a constant state of anxiety lest one should, at any moment, burst her manicured carapace and spill ghastly ‘feminine’ ichors all over the place. hence the prevalence of airbrushing, sterilized tampons, and vapid smiles in the western pop tradition – or hairless ‘beauties’, disabled by their own ludicrous proportions, in the ‘high arts’.
cook’s works are refreshing in their stomach-turning tangibility, and the visual conundrum of how the simple elements of food and female form can be combined with such a repulsive result; the essence of their beauty is in the pedestrian nature of their elements, and the extraordinary effect of the sum of parts.