Monday, December 31, 2012

Cotton's Candy

Today I break my “no living artists” rule once again to bring you the 2012 oil painting Ruin by Will Cotton.

Will Cotton, Ruin, 2012, oil on linen, 86.4 x 61 cm.

Will Cotton is known for his naturalistic Candy Land landscapes. With each painting, he creates a lavish utopia where perfect pinup girls lounge around all day. They seem to have no needs or wants, but no substance either. The entire world exists only to make our mouths water. The whole thing is a little obscene. But while it might not be healthy to live there (there are no vegetables or meat to balance out the sweets), it’s fun to explore. I love when familiar things, like molasses and candy canes, become other familiar things, like swamps and trees. And anyway, it’s the rot just under the surface that makes Cotton’s work intellectually stimulating. It’s what distinguishes his form of sickly-sweetness from the sickly-sweet clichés of Thomas Kinkade.

I chose Ruin for a couple of reasons. First of all, it comes from a group of paintings where you can actually see the slow decline of Cotton’s world, like tooth decay caused by too much sugar. There are candy neighborhoods being swept away in pudding floods, landfills packed with chocolate doughnuts and pastries, and of course derelict gingerbread houses. But look carefully at Cotton’s paintings, and read the titles! The decomposition might not be obvious at first!

With Ruin, the first thing you notice is the fog. It gives everything a faded, eerie quality that serves to keep the viewer at a distance. For me, the mere fact that it’s a gingerbread house does that too. While I love the creativity that goes into them, I’ve never actually had the desire to eat one. I wouldn’t even know where to start. At the same time, the intrigue of broken candy cane columns and a large hole in the cookie roof draws you in.

Up until now, I could just as easily have been describing Cotton’s 2007 painting Ghost. The two paintings are essentially mirror images of each other. But I think Ruin has something special that Ghost is missing. And that’s a way in. Instead of having an even coating of fog across the composition, Ruin has an opening near the bottom where the intense reds and greens of candy canes and the dark of a shadowy doorway peek through. Imagining we’re inside the painting, the opening is at about eye level. It’s as if Cotton is inviting us to go inside and have a look around.

Will Cotton, Ghost, 2007, oil on linen, 182.9 x 121.9 cm.

I first learned of Will Cotton while I was in New Paltz getting my bachelors degree. I don’t really remember any specifics. I had no idea he existed one day, and then I did. One thing I didn’t know was that he grew up in New Paltz (although that explains why there was a Will Cotton painting hanging behind the circulation desk the one time I ventured into the town’s library). I learned that when I was an intern at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and had the opportunity to attend a special “interns only” artist’s lecture at Sotheby’s. I also learned that he makes big, detailed maquettes, or models, of his candy landscapes (using actual sweets!) before painting them. Apparently, he’s become quite the baker, and his studio always smells like cake.

A lot of you are probably already familiar with Will Cotton too, even if you didn’t know it. Lately he’s been experimenting with media outside painting. There’s been sculpture, stage design, fashion . . . . He even opened a temporary bakery, selling sweet treats on the cheap. But he’s most known for Katie Perry’s “California Gurls” music video. He was the art director and is responsible for the legions of gummy bears and cotton candy clouds. Since then, Cotton-inspired ads have been popping up in magazines and commercials everywhere.

But overall, what I like most about Will Cotton's work is not the surrealistic world made out of candy and cake. It’s that he makes the surrealistic world seem not so surrealistic. It just seems real.

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