Private View : Wednesday 8th of February 2023, 6:00-8 pm London (Wandsworth)
An emerald-eyed tiger in a pink forest, a stag and serpent, giant, blue-faced figures and long-legged horses. Hooked on Neverland, Ralf Kokke’s first solo exhibition with Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, is a journey into the strange and colourful world of make-believe.
For Kokke, Neverland – the concept of never growing up – is the archetype of paradise as well as a ‘safe garden’ from the struggles and anxieties of everyday life; it is a place that he envisions through his art, but it is also the creative process itself. Many of the images that he paints are inspired by his dreams which he records in words and drawings before allowing the ideas to evolve on the canvas. He works intuitively, allowing one work to lead on to another as if he is building a story. However, while colours, landscapes and characters reappear, his paintings are too elusive in composition and tone to be narrative. Rather than illustrating specific events or activities, they allude to complex interactions and emotional states – nothing is ever quite what it seems.
Take, for instance, the painting Still Streams and Lush Flowers which depicts a large, undulating figure and a tiger lying on opposite banks of a river. The setting is idyllic: each bank is covered with long verdant grass and pink flowers while the bright colour tones evoke a sunny day. The painting, as with the others in the exhibition, is striking for the flatness of the composition and the rough texture of the chalk, which as Kokke notes creates a raw ‘almost primitive feel’ similar to cave paintings. But the impression of simplicity or serenity may be misleading: the tiger’s eye glints green while the figure’s body is almost insect-like with three eyes and multiple legs. Is this a vision of a utopia? Or two predators conspiring?
‘In my work, eyes are always a symbol to watch out for something or to pay attention,’ explains Kokke, ‘while multiple features or limbs create a sense of movement or speed.’ In Friendly Foreshadows, we are once again presented with an ambiguous interaction in which a stag looks up at a snake – a symbol of danger and temptation but also femininity and a creative life force – curled around a tree. Here, the stag’s stuttered eyes and fifth leg indicate the shadow movement past or perhaps to come. Did the snake strike at its back or warn of some other threat out of the frame of the painting? As with all of his works, Kokke allows the viewer the freedom to interpret the image or rather to see it, simultaneously, from multiple perspectives.
‘I often long to go back to the comfort of childhood, but that version of the world where everything coexists and is simple and easy is an illusion, which distracts me from what’s really happening or what I’m really feeling,’ says Kokke. The use of the adjective ‘hooked’ in the title is a playful reference to the embittered character of Captain Hook who is trapped in Neverland but also implies the idea of addiction, obsession or single mindedness. For Kokke, making art is an act of compulsion but it is also, fundamentally, about plurality and freedom: the freedom to move fluidly, to think originally and to create boldly.