Nigel Cooke was born in Manchester, United Kingdom, in 1973. He began studying art at Stockport College, and then continued his work at Nottingham Trent University, receiving a BA in Fine Art in 1994, and later attended the Royal College of Art, London, where he received an MA in painting in 1997. While living in Essex after receiving his MA, he became acquainted with artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who gave him his first solo exhibition at Chapman Fine Arts Gallery, London (2000). He later earned a Ph.D. in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, London (2004), where he wrote a thesis on the "death of painting"—the recurring 20th-century idea that painting, under the weight of technological modernity and its own accumulated history, had lost the ability to effectively signify or to communicate to contemporary audiences.
Cooke's work has primarily centered on meticulously painted, large-scale urban landscapes, which he calls "hybrid theatrical spaces." Employing disparate styles and often integrating trompe l'oeil depictions of miniature rocks and trees with backdrops of decaying, graffiti-marked buildings, Cooke creates environments that tend to convey obscure and macabre narratives. In Ghost on the Happy Trail (2003), cartoon brains and schematic birds traipse across empty lots studded with jack-o'-lanterns and buried human heads. In The Artist's Garden (2006), the hyperreal detail present in other works gives way to an ultimately flat rendering of penciled forms against a gold backdrop. The work combines Byzantine stylistic elements with the ubiquitous flatness of mid-century modern painting in an indirect acknowledgment that the flatness associated with the death of painting is not a modern or new convention. More recent works, such as Experience (2009), depict scenes of lone artists endowed with beards generally associated with ancient philosophers, in slightly menacing, yet weary poses. As in his past landscapes, in these works Cooke continues to focus on concepts of creative exhaustion.
Solo exhibitions of Cooke's work have been held at Tate Britain, London (2004); Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York (2004, 2009); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (2006); Moderna museet, Stockholm (2007); and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (2010). He has been included in group exhibitions at various institutions, including Museo Tamayo arte contemporáneo, Mexico City (2004); MUMOK (Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien), Vienna (2007); and Museum für Neue Kunst, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany (2007). He lives and works in London.