InSight No. XLVII
Despite being closely related to contemporary Kitchen Sink realism, Peter Coker’s ‘meatscapes’ of the 1950s emerged from a direct engagement with the original realist painter: Gustave Courbet.
Almost immediately after finishing his post-graduate studies at the Royal College of Art in 1954, Coker (1926–2004) entered the public imagination as an artist of talent. His acute realist sensibility, the open-grained quality of his painting, and the exacting simplicity of his imagery came to light at his first solo exhibition in January 1956. It was held at Zwemmer Gallery, around the corner from the famous bookshop on Charing Cross Road, and was dominated by Coker’s paintings of animal carcasses. Most depicted unplucked chickens and hares. Fish with Grill exemplifies the main characteristic of these ‘meatscapes’: a scabrous impasto, paradoxically uniform across the picture surface while successfully evoking in turn the distinctive textures of fish, a wooden table and assorted objets.
By contrast with Nicholson's still lifes, Coker loaded his paintings with detail and bold textures. The outcome might be regarded as a successful variation on the Cubist notion of an object-like picture, in which the painted table surface shows not just visual but material similarities to the real thing.
In Fish with Grill and several other ‘meatscape’ still lifes by Coker, the wooden planks of the table run continuously through the length of the picture, from top to bottom or side to side. A perennial source of interest to painters of a realist sensibility, bare floorboards have occasionally been made a painting’s chief subject – as they were in Gustave Caillebotte’s Floor Scrapers (1875), for example. Continuous flat pieces of open-grained wood are a rich source of visual interest, variously reflecting or absorbing the light and displaying a more or less irregular pattern of knots. Following Coker’s intense scrutiny of the table’s wooden boards, another post-war realist painter adopted this as a technique for activating negative space. Floorboards were prominent in Lucian Freud’s work from the late 1960s onwards, each one fastidiously observed and delivering on his claim to paint a ‘ground’ rather than merely a ‘background’.