It’s hard to encapsulate the legacy of a painter like Maurice Cockrill, a British artist who spent his career exploring new artistic modes. Throughout his life, he encouraged students to do the same at some of the UK’s most prestigious institutions—among them, the Slade and the Royal College of Art—and, later, as Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools.
Now, nearly one year after the artist’s death, London gallery Waterhouse & Dodd looks back on his style-spanning career with an exhibition featuring 30 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures. The gallery’s first exhibition as the estate’s appointed agents, it follows a major retrospective at Durham Art Gallery and an exhibition at the Royal Academy’s summer show this year. Without attempting to be all-encompassing, the Waterhouse & Dodd exhibition offers a cross-section of a career through the decades—an evolution that began with realist work, then extended to ambitious figure paintings in the ’80s, to the languid, landscape-based abstractions Cockrill developed in the ’90s, and for which he became best known. In addition, the show features lesser-known works, such as the artist’s erotically charged collages.
“I’m certainly not one of those artists who finds a look early on sticks to it, perhaps nervous that collectors of fans might turn against them,” Cockrill once said. “Early on I did precise, photorealist things. And I used to stand there, photo in one hand, No. 6 sable brush in the other, making tiny marks and thinking, ‘This just isn’t me.’ I realized I needed a more direct, physical involvement with what I was doing.”
While over time we see the artist’s hand loosen up as he delves further into abstraction, certain themes persisted throughout his life. The impersonal polish of his early photorealist work, for example, hinted at a hidden world beneath the surface. That same idea was explored more concretely in late works where layers of liquid latex were pulled away to reveal the underpainting beneath. By the time these were created, Cockrill’s interest had shifted to the work of Japanese author Haruki Murakami and string theory, but the sense of the paintings as a reflection of things just beyond the physical plane remained. As always, Cockrill was an artist looking past the obvious. What he found there was a sense of the universal: life, growth, death, and decay.