Looking at the contorted naked bodies and animalistic, glazed expressions, you wouldn’t believe that whisper-voiced Monica Cook was behind them. She sees the world with… not naivety, but an untainted, childlike curiosity. “Approaching things with wonder is important to me. The more I learn, the more questions I have, and the longer I’ve been doing art, the deeper I’ve gone into my roots and my childhood. Whether approaching my life or approaching art, that’s the most sacred place I can explore and the most honest I can be.”
Through introspection, Monica is able to create artwork that is both incredibly personal and full of universal impulses. “It’s definitely personal but I also like to talk about the struggles that we all feel, the nobleness of persevering – despite the internal struggles – and the humour and ignorance of the self.” Her paintings, drawings and stop-motion animations open our eyes to everything that makes us human, and it’s not always pleasant to look at. “I guess I’ve always been curious. The things that attract me a lot of the time are things that I don’t understand or that make me uncomfortable. I like the challenge of trying to find a way to make those things digestible.” The pieces come across as slightly surreal, but when you take a step back, you realise that they are more literal than absurd. By painting in such a primal reality, Monica opens our eyes to the innate compulsions behind human emotion, and the ways they are physically expressed – every bead of sweat, drip of saliva, quiver of lips and rapturous glazing of eyes.
“The thing I find most interesting about her paintings is the accurate portrayal of liquid as slime,” one journalist said, entranced by her ability to contort the natural and familiar into something shameful and repulsive.
“When I’m painting, it’s more about my relationship with the object than it is about me. It’s hard for me to separate myself from the experience. It could be a fish or an octopus. I handle it until it becomes unfamiliar to me so I can see it in a new way. People might want to read into those paintings but for me, it’s just about finding magic in the mundane and exploring further. I’m sure if I stumbled upon the work I’d see it differently.” How her work makes viewers feel could be considered part of the art. In one of Monica’s paintings, three women in her own image lark around with juicy slices of watermelon, slippery eels and bumpy octopus tentacles. Juice oozes from their skin, their eyes are blindly elated and mouths laugh as if caught in a moment, but they also appear creepily static and somewhat debauched. It’s hard to say if the painting is an expression of pure, unadulterated joy or grotesque, hedonistic greed. It’s testament to Monica’s talent that she can create this polemic reaction with a paintbrush, distorting things that would look innocent enough in the flesh into a subtly revolting piece of art. She highlights the parts of ourselves that we guard in an attempt to make ourselves feel conscious and in control – emotionally, the lust and urges; physically, our biological makeup, the veins and the translucent skin.
Even Monica is embarrassed by these feelings, and it is one of the reasons why she chooses to work alone. “I can be extremely awkward, yes. I can be really shy, too. A lot of people see my work and can’t understand how it comes out of me because we have very different personalities. I don’t like to work with anybody in the room. I put myself in a position where I am really uncomfortable interacting with something, and work with it until I become comfortable with it, and capture that private moment of surrender or acceptance. It’s all about private performance, and amplifying the absurdity of a situation – and making myself laugh.”
Read more of our exclusive interview in Issue Two of The Hunger, on sale now.