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In the tarot, the water bearer is represented by the star card. In it, a nude woman pours water onto the grassy earth from a jug in one hand, and into a pool of water from a jug in the other. She kneels on the living, solid ground with her left leg, stepping into the whirlpool before her with her right, moving toward the swirling symbol of intuition, memory, and imagination. Carrie Cook echoes the water bearer’s absorbing in-betweenness in her solo show, Tears for Years, at Tyler Park Presents. Ten years after the untimely death of her father, and through the disappointment of lost romances, the artist conveys the disorienting, oneiric effects of lingering grief by employing imagery related to water: rain, waterfalls, ponds, pools, the ocean. Tears flow across her paintings, which range from a wall-sized diptych to canvasses as small as a diary. The water helps to illustrate the space between flashbacks and reverie, and feels especially relevant in this unprecedented time of quarantine, where isolation and uncertainty increasingly erode the separation between daily life and darker dreams.
Cook’s imagery pulls from an archive of personal photographs taken with her phone, digital cameras, and—much less frequently—screenshots of pictures online she has kept and curated since 2015. I have known Cook for nearly a decade, during which time this archive has taken on more and more importance in her work—she has referred to her photo archive as her “dictionary” or “Bible.” Photos from the archive appear in Sunny Beach Fountain (2020), an installation in a smaller room off the gallery’s main space. In the piece, three slim, collaged paper columns hang from the ceiling to a fountain on the floor, each one a chain-like patchwork of photos that are encrusted with coins, pebbles, and small mirrors. In one, a photo of Cook’s father at a NASCAR race joins a small painting of a botanical form and an aerial shot of a desert. The columns’ jumbled, clipped imagery and bumpy, reflective surfaces recall the daily visual detritus that eventually form our memories, and evoke the sorts of unexpected associations that can emerge when trying to recall an especially far off person, place, or event. A document containing text and collaged photos by the artist describes a memorializing ritual that Cook enacted for her father on the Texas beach where they last met, a reminder that even unassuming throwaways can trigger a descent into deep grief or memory. On the floor, a fourth strip of photographs—of crashing waves and a Los Angeles sunset—lays beneath a clear rectangular tray of water. A fountain at the center of the pool softly spouts water from the top of a Styrofoam cooler that is surrounded by sand and a set of ceramic frogs, snakes, and alligators—creatures that live between land and water, natural navigators of the in-between.
Cook’s installation injects an unexpected element of feeling into something as quotidian as a Styrofoam cooler: its white, streamlined form and proximity to the ground make it resemble a gravestone. The fountain presents the thematic and visual source material of her paintings as a single, sculpted manifestation of her artistic mythology. However, the fountain’s trickling sounds and lightweight components serve as a serene, mobile counterpoint to the works in the next room, where Cook’s murky, nocturnal palette and thickly-applied paint convey a kind of emotional sedimentation.
In Pond in a Pond (2019), thick flecks of soupy, unmixed colors churn into and around one another, recalling unresolved sentiments that refuse to settle in the mind. The inky pools in Pond in a Pond, Bad Weather (2019), and Waterfall diptych (2020) evoke the stymied saturation of a hard Houston rain—Cook lived there for a time during grad school—where one must wait for the water to seep down. More feeling comes from Cook’s portrayal of human bodies. Romeo 3 (2020) shows a TV screen on the back of an airplane seat playing the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. Cook’s version of the iconic water scene is layered with agitated, heavy strokes that obscure the details of each face, making it unclear whether there is tenderness or tension between the two figures. The movie was popular when Cook was a preteen, and her ambivalent, painterly treatment of the scene seems to reflect the experience of revisiting the film’s message of timeless, pure, romance as an adult who has weathered failed relationships and lost loves.
For Cook, past events remain vividly relevant as elements to mull over in her present-day artistic practice. But though her works are based in real-world events, they remain tantalizingly dream-like and open to interpretation. Cook’s paintings are dark without falling into darkness. Like the water bearer, she moves toward intuitions and dreams, though she keeps one foot on solid ground. In this way, Cook does something we all do, especially in this uncertain time: revisit the past from the present moment. The star card is seen as a symbol of hope and forward movement after a period of turmoil. Tears for Years opens a space to process and rework fleeting memories, a gesture toward healing.
Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist based in Austin, Texas. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Art Papers, Artsy, BOMB, Frieze, Glasstire, Hyperallergic, and Mousse Magazine, among others.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 23.