Nurture, fragility, and protection have always been prominent themes for Brooklyn-based Monica Cook. Using a variety of media, her work often explores these subjects within the human context, through gestures like feeding and grooming. In “Liquid Vessels” (on view through May 19), Cook introduces a new series of sculptures that expand her view to include the natural world of plants and animals—a segue that feels particularly timely given current concerns about humanity’s damaging effects on the environment.
Receiver (2016) anchors the show. Based on a fast-running boat for hunting whales, Cook’s vehicle has a different mission. She substituted a baby’s bottle for the deadly harpoon, then connected it by rubber tubes to a series of nipples covering the bottom of the boat, whose sides are also festooned with barnacles, sea urchin spines, and mirrors. Cook has turned something lethal into something life-giving, yet she also signals the precariousness (or wishful thinking) of her conversion by propping the vehicle on a series of glass rods. There is a real sense of fragility, as if at any moment the support system keeping the life-sustaining vessel afloat might collapse.
Cook is a master of assemblage, mixing both manmade and natural elements. In Hydrilla Aerostar (2015), driftwood, dried lotus pods, and feathers are intertwined with artificial foliage, pipe cleaners, and glass to form a draped garland on the wall. The twisted, winding forms represent various stages of growth and renewal, from flowering buds to seedpods. At the beginning of the garland, the elements are heavily encrusted with a layer of Aqua-Resin and pigment to give color and a sense of life. As the garland progresses, less and less of the coating is used, underscoring the frailty of the material underneath. Stripping off the mask as she goes, Cook reveals the tenuous nature of the entire structure.
Last year, Cook won a fellowship to study at Urban Glass in Brooklyn, where she explored various forms of glassblowing, eventually settling on a style known as flameworking. In a process that she describes as “sculpting with her breath,” she heats specific areas of glass tubes with a small blowtorch, and with her inhalation or exhalation, manipulates the molten material into the desired shape. Then, she fuses the smaller pieces together to make intricate sculptures, which are the highlight of this exhibition.
Cook’s elaborate construction process is clearly evident in Seven of Fronds (2018), one of three “vessels” within the show. In this chalice-like form, fused glass rods create a lattice-like armature that rises from the ground. Three quarters of the way up, the piece bows out to reveal a frieze of animal heads, each one tucked safely within an aperture in the structure. Glass-encased sea urchin spines dangling from metal chains like protective charms only heighten the impression that these are revered and protected figures.
Similar environmental themes appear in Honeypot and Nest (both 2019). The interior of the former is lined with honeycombs and dotted with small bees. Three cobras, poised to strike and protect the queen and her eggs, reveal Cook’s growing confidence in her medium as she introduces mirroring solution to emulate their cool, smooth skin. She also uses dustings of cast concrete to give the work an aged appearance. In Nest, three alligators protect a monkey nestled among glass tendrils. The introduction of bismuth, a natural metal that when melted coats the glass and gives it an almost iridescent surface, implies a patina of age.
A strong conceptual connection between subject and medium reverberates throughout these sculptures. Melding delicate, spindly glass with her recurring repertoire of nipples, seedpods, and sea urchin spines, Cook reminds us of the fragile state of our natural environment and the imperative to nurture and protect it now. If not, her works seem to portend, animals and plants may be reduced to mere memories, forever enshrined in vessels as relics of the past.