Perhaps because many of her paintings are very big, or perhaps because their subjects include such traditionally male dominions as the card-game, the casino, the snooker hall and the race-track, admirers of her work are often very taken aback when they come face to face with P J Crook. “People tend to assume I’ll be a pretty large man”, laughs PJ. She’s laughing because the misapprehension is a major one: in person, she is very tiny indeed, with wrists barely wider than a Crunchie bar. That’s the first thing you notice, on meeting her. Then there’s the waist-length blonde hair and bright, cornflower blue eyes. Within a few moments in her company, something else becomes apparent: PJ Crook hasn’t got a single cynical bone in her body. There’s an open-eyed, open-heartedness about her; as well as a sense of sincerity, consideration and warmth. Put simply, she shines.
It is no surprise that her work is in great demand from collectors the world over. The paintings combine a highly distinctive style with extraordinary technical mastery. No contemporary artist is more accomplished at depicting perspective or depth of field, whether the scene is a crowded street, an open-air swimming pool or the jostling spectators at the races. “I feel the viewer is as important as the artist”, says PJ, with characteristic generosity. Certainly the viewer has a sense of being invited into each painting. In part this is achieved by PJ’s signature trompe l’oeil framing, in which she continues the picture-plane to the outer edges of each piece, creating a three dimensionality. “People say it draws them in”, she agrees. “It started early on, I found I didn’t like the grandeur of gold frames and the way they cut a picture off. I had a frame from a junk shop and I took the painting over the frame and it just looked right.” As a young artist, she was as drawn to sculpture as to painting, so this framing is a way of realising both forms.
PJ Crook has, in her work, responded to events as diverse as the first Gulf War and the Asian Tsunami, creating a sense of menace which troubles the apparent calm of the picture’s surfaces. Often she paints crowds: people reading newspapers, as if on a busy commuter train; people feasting or gambling or mingling on a station concourse; the bustle of the circus, the bar, the cabaret. “I’ve always been fascinated by groups of people”, she says. “I find a crowd exhilarating but also quite terrifying. Or it can be a refuge, the way in which an individual looses his identity in a crowd; or it can be very powerful, like the peaceful revolution they achieved in Estonia, by holding hands all across the land. . .all those wills together, willing things to happen.” The movement and colour, the sheer vitality of crowds inspire her, whether it’s a dawn visit to the old fish-market in Tokyo, or a visit to Cheltenham Racecourse, only a stone’s throw from her home. “Maybe in my studio I can keep a crowd under control”, she smiles.
Sometimes the paintings offer a more enclosed and private world: a pair of children playing in a room, figures in a dimly lit-corridor, a series of self-portraits. These pictures present what the Russian writer Anton Chekhov called “the art of the glimpse”: a place where the imagination of the viewer interacts with that of the artist. “I can remember, as a child, peeking into smoky rooms where my father was playing cards all night. My dad was a fantastic storyteller and he loved to gamble. So I think some of my paintings come from the stories he used to tell me.”
PJ does not work from photographs or drawings, preferring to paint directly, from a combination of remembered observation and imagination. “I paint intuitively, so it’s as much about feeling as thinking. Compositionally they’re fairly resolved when I begin, but I don’t really know in advance what each picture is going to look like. I think, if I knew, I wouldn’t have the same compulsion to make the painting. It all happens on the canvas and that’s very important to me. I like the adventure, the risk. It’s always a journey of discovery. Whenever I’m working on a painting it becomes like an intense love affair. I often think it’s a bit like method acting, you have to feel like each person or thing in the picture. It’s an emotional journey.”
PJ’s practice is exceptional in that she has always incorporated the demands of family life into the work. Unlike many women artists, she perceives no conflict between motherhood and self-expression: “Often it seemed to me that motherhood and creativity were so closely entwined that they were actually part of each other. Both my children [a daughter, Henrietta and a son, Nathan] have always been a huge source of inspiration.” Indeed, she first began to make paintings on the kitchen table, when her baby daughter was asleep.
Her parents, too, play their part in the work; either obliquely, as when she incorporates stories her father told her into the pictures; or directly, as in the case of the recent painting, the luminous Hare of Tiree. “My father was stationed in Tiree in the RAF, and I was conceived there”, PJ explains. “We recently took my mother back, for her 90th birthday. It is a bit like a paradise, really: the flora in the painting are all plants which grow on the island. the sea really was turquoise and you’d see seals. . .It was quite magical. It was only after I’d finished the picture that I discovered that the hare is a symbol of fertility. I’m sure more paintings will come out that will be inspired by Tiree.”
P J Crook lives and works in Gloucestershire with her partner, the artist Richard Parker. Much of her childhood was spent nearby. “I love being part of a community”, she says. Without fanfare, she quietly and generously supports a number of local causes. She has contributed greatly to the National Star Centre, of which she is a patron; and to her local church, St Michael and All Angels at Bishops Cleeve, she donated a very moving depiction of Christ’s crucifixion.
Yet travel also informs the work. PJ shows regularly in Paris and Estonia, as well as in New York and Florida, and collections of her paintings hang in Japan and Saudi Arabia. In 2001, she was invited to lecture at the Morohashi Museum in Japan, where some of her own work is displayed among a major collection of Surrealist and Modern art. “It was wonderful”, she says. “Having the opportunity to go to Japan and observe such a different culture was marvelous. We saw a traditional wedding, and the White Heron Festival at Asakusa; and we travelled through the country to Nara, the old Capital”. Visitors to her forthcoming London show (at The Alpha Gallery, Cork Street) will be able to feast their eyes on the remarkable new painting, A Bigger Wave, inspired by her travels in Japan. The woman in the elaborate kimono may be a Geisha, two hundred years ago; or she may be contemporary. Perhaps she is sad, a lonely figure watching the cranes and the sea from her window. Or has she come to the window, blissfully, straight from a lover’s bed?
There is mystery at the heart of these paintings, as if something momentous might be about to take place; or as if a seismic event has already happened, perhaps still unbeknown to the people in the picture. The viewer may be lost within this world of the artist’s devising, or impose a narrative of their own. Like the silent white owls which swoop though some of the night-time paintings, PJ Crook always invites the imagination to take flight.