The marshmallow world of Will Cotton

marshmallow-world-will-cotton
'Consuming Folly,' 2009-2010, oil on linen. (Courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery.)
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The small crowd that gathered in an upstairs room at Christie's on Tuesday evening was youthful even if it wasn't universally young, casually well-dressed, savvy about both art history and the technical aspects of painting. It was, in other words, a group of people very much like the artist Will Cotton, whose talk these people had come to hear.

It was the first ArtTalk of the American Federation of Art's 2010-11 season, this one with in-kind support from Christie's, which provided the conference room and the flat-screen monitor, and refreshment from the Kumquat Cupcakery.

Clean-cut and boyish, Cotton's red hair is thinning but it's otherwise surprising to learn he's 45. He wore a slim-cut blue oxford shirt and greenish-gray slacks, fitted but not too tight—the unassuming haute-working-class uniform that you see throughout the art world these days. Charming and modest, confident but not arrogant, neither too earnest nor too cynical, he's perfected the art of the slide lecture."I don't want these to be just silly," he said as we all looked at TV mounted in the front of the room.

The things he didn't want to be just silly were his paintings. Since those paintings, though, depict a vividly realistic world composed exclusively of candy and baked goods and pretty women, the desire for them to be serious could be considered a little absurd. But absurd desires, it happens, are Cotton's main theme.

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Cotton has spent the past 10 years at a major gallery (Mary Boone, who reps artists like Eric Fischl, Terence Koh, and Barbara Kruger), and he's a fixture in the contemporary art world. He shows, he sells, he paints the portraits of people like Emma Hall, the 24-year-old art collector who would have fit in perfectly in the crowd on Tuesday.

But he has maintained a sense of being just slightly under the radar. That changed a bit this year, when he got a bunch of press for painting Katy Perry nude on a cloud of cotton candy for the cover of her new album, and art-directing her candy-filled video for "California Gurls," but he remains somehow less "discovered" than contemporaries like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Elizabeth Peyton. His paintings sell for a lot less than theirs, for one thing, and unlike them, he's never had a solo museum show. He may end up the Maxfield Parrish of his generation—the weird one, the "minor" one—but he may also be the artist who says the most about our moment.

He was born in Massachusetts, but grew up in New Paltz, N.Y., 80 miles north of the city. He started making Hopper-esque paintings of buildings around town, and first realized the appeal of an art career when his grandmother's friend offered him $25 for one of them, several times what he was making mowing lawns. He graduated from the Cooper Union in 1987, but his work flailed for a long while. He did landscapes, and experimented with using imagery from popular culture, but was unhappy with what he produced.

His breakthrough came in 1996, when he tried to do a painting based on the board game Candyland. He included the Trix rabbit, too, which he called "a good stand-in for myself," a creature obsessed with the things that are also the themes of his work, and which he listed dutifully: desire, indulgence, insatiability, pleasure, pleasure-seeking.

The shift was not just one of content. For the first time, in the Candyland series Cotton built maquettes of the gingerbread houses and ice-cream geysers before painting them, and something clicked. "It changed everything for me," he said. He could finally achieve "controlled conditions of lighting and"—perhaps more importantly—"controlled conditions of content." He used the same language in an interview with GQ: "I felt like I had control over the process for the first time." Over the next few years, the maquettes grew more and more elaborate; for a painting of a root-beer waterfall, he constructed, well, a working root-beer waterfall in his studio.

"Control," in this case, meant believability, and vice versa. Cotton's need to have something real, something authentic (however man-made) on which to tack his surreal, imaginative flights shows why his work speaks as strongly as any today to our anxieties about how ineffable, how dematerialized a lot of life has become. His paintings are entirely free of technology, and, indeed, the modern world, but they are products of that world—hyperrealistic and flat, and nostalgic for things that aren't. As he spoke, it was clear that his enthusiasm was for the creation of the maquettes, more than than the paintings. As Roberta Smith, reviewing Cotton's first show at Mary Boone in the Times, wrote, "It doesn't help that up close their surfaces are dull and lifeless, as if overly reliant on an opaque projector. These surfaces make one feel that Mr. Cotton had more fun—and certainly faced more of a challenge—building his sugary concoctions than painting them."

In the couple of years after that first Boone show, Cotton's technique got more assured and sophisticated, yet Smith's assessment remained accurate: the canvases were empty and lifeless, "about" pleasure but hardly pleasurable. It seems like Cotton realized this, too, and in 2002 he began to add figures to his work—beautiful, thin, solemn women, inspired, he said, by depictions of both Venus and midcentury pin-up girls. But, since the work arrived comfortably after the culture wars, there hasn't been much deployment of dependable, if musty, words like "sexism" or "misogyny." (As a contrasting case, in 1992 the Village Voice called on audiences to boycott a show by John Currin of paintings with influences similar to Cotton's.)

"John's work is psychologically more complex [than mine]," Cotton said of Currin. "While I would say they're caricatures, he's not afraid of specific characters, while I'm working with archetypes."

That is one way, though, in which his work seems more problematic, if less controversial, than Currin's. Currin's images of big-breasted blonde airheads are bitter social commentary; they're George Grosz. The depictions are often negative, but they have a specificity that at least keeps them real. Cotton's paintings are superficially softer and gentler, but his women are anonymous and bland, existing only to end up covered in sticky, often milky white fluids. (Creme anglaise, right?)

Cotton is at his best when his work is entirely abstract, as in the eerily perfect Root Beer Swamp (2002), or in a more recent series of portraits of women with elaborate candy headdresses. One in particular, from 2008, shows a beautiful woman from the shoulders up against a dark background, wearing an explosion of brightly colored ribbon candy. But she's pensive and unhappy, gazing at something down and off to the side, and the painting feels, finally, real. The emotions—torn between celebration and mourning, reality and fantasy—are what Cotton keeps trying for and so rarely achieving.

The fundamental balance the work attempts to maintain, between innocence and experience, was one that preoccupied blue-chip artists of the 1980s like Jeff Koons and David Salle. And, indeed, it was as part of a push to recapture her '80s heyday that Mary Boone took on Cotton and other young artists in the late '90s. Joining a gallery is still a defining moment in an artist's career: The paintings shown on Cotton's website date no earlier than 1999, the year he went to Boone. The gallerist herself was there on Tuesday—a little oddly, considering that the intimate talk wasn't a major event. Tiny and animated, she smiled and chatted during the wine-and-cupcakes reception that followed, standing happily by her artist's side.

Before I left, I wandered through the downstairs exhibition rooms at Christie's. They were in the process of taking down a show of modern and contemporary works in preparation for Wednesday's auction, but though workers were faintly audible, the rooms were empty. Some paintings were propped up against the walls, some had been wrapped in plastic and laid on the floor. There was a small work on paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat still hanging, and a blue-dominated shaped canvas from 1968 by Frank Stella, which ended up going for more than double its $180,000 upper estimate. There was a large drawing by Fred Sandback I found myself wanting so badly that it physically hurt, that it made my chest hurt. It was like touring the ruins of a museum, a decaying fantasy land of beauty and wanting and having.

The final image Will Cotton had showed earlier was of a nude woman sitting, poised, atop a puffy cotton candy cloud. He had made the painting for an upcoming show at Sotheby's, of works inspired by the three parts of Dante's Commedia.

"Hopefully you can tell," he said, "I'm taking on the paradise side of things."