Drawn From Life
2004 - 2019
June 21 - July 21, 2019
Reception for the Artist: Friday, June 21st, 5-7pm
By Phoebe Hoban
Mike Cockrill’s cleverly provocative work runs the gamut, from his 1982 cult classic, The White Papers, a hyper-satirical comic co-created with Judge Hughes, (whose ironic pseudonym refers to the judge who swore in Lyndon Baines Johnson) which tracks the trajectory of an all-too-familiar American saga - from the spilling of JFK’s brains in Dallas, to the Manhattan assassination of John Lennon — to his more recent series, The Existential Man. These dystopian human cogs are elongated cyphers; as in Sleepwalker (2013), a strap-hanger riding the subway shotgun with his own supine skeleton, or the faceless worker blindly trying to relocate his own eyeballs, The Puzzle, (2012).
But make no mistake. Cockrill’s idiosyncratic art has a clear continuum. It is also, not surprisingly, somewhat autobiographical. As he puts it, “The anxieties of a child growing up during the Cold War era with duck and cover drills has parallels with today’s fraught emotional uncertainties.”
Cockrill didn’t just grow up in the Cold War era, he grew up in McLean, Virginia, in the shadow of the CIA, where his father, who worked at the Pentagon, had top-level security clearance. As Cockrill has said of that time, “Everything was a mystery. Everything hidden.” There was, apparently, a secret agenda. The trick was to decode it.
That applied not just to the military-industrial complex, but something just as potent - adolescent sexuality. “It was all part of the Freudian landscape of my childhood (which included the sexually loaded illustrations of such 1950s children’s series as the Golden Books.) “I wanted to depict, and satirize, the set-up for the great American dream - and what it turned out to be,” the artist says.
After a 7-year run with cartooning, Cockrill returned to his original academic roots, painting, starting with large-scale acrylic nudes of young girls. This work eventually transitioned into oil paintings of all-American boys and girls, clearly referencing his early idol, Norman Rockwell; but Rockwell with a toxic twist. In Big Sister, 1994, for instance, a brother and sister sit happily side by side, but the boy wears no underpants and the girl is topless. (In a later evocation, Cross My Heart, 2005, a 1950s style mother is sending her son a classically mixed message: with one index finger she taps his nose, an apparent reprimand, while with her other hand she cradles his chin.)
In the mid-1990s, Cockrill had a brainstorm: what if he merged the violence that permeated The White Papers, with his not-so-innocent prepubescent young girls? Thus The Babydoll Clown Killer series was born, Cockrill’s first real commercial success. These paintings, done from 1995-2000, feature Girl Scout-like young females armed with revolvers, targeting terrified clowns. Cockrill inventively subverted the cliché of clown art, while, he says, channeling artists who have famously depicted the sheer horror of war; Francisco Goya, or, more contemporaneously, Leon Golub. “We’ve become de-sensitized to such images. I wanted to flip it. If you turn a little girl in a party dress into a clown killer, we suddenly see it differently. I like my work to talk about difficult things; I want to provoke a more interesting conversation.”
As Cockrill’s work has evolved over time, he continues to regurgitate pervasive childhood images, creating corrosive riffs on popular Americana, rendered in his trademark retro-illustration style. Unlike Eric Fischl’s work, in which the painterly technique is as seductive as the image itself, Cockrill’s work is deliberately not pretty. “How bad can you get?” Cockrill recalls critic and curator Marcia Tucker (who coined the term “Bad Painting” back in the 1970s) saying during a studio visit in 1982.
“My paintings have been as much about the American psyche as they have been about ways of constructing [and deconstructing] not only the painting, but the story. I like to expose the elements of my work, to make painting that is aware of itself,” Cockrill says. Thus one of his oldest works, “American Gothic,” begun in 1993, is also one of his most recent, completed in 2018. “It’s a snapshot with a 25-year gap.”
Like Cross Your Heart, American Gothic features a signature Cockrill trope: mothers and sons. On the left side of the canvas is a mother spackling the wall (Cockrill’s mother did the home repairs) and a dapper little boy in a snappy red jacket. On the right side is another little boy, also in a suit jacket and tie, with a sexy blonde mother in a plunging shirt, and a sketch of the space shuttle at the boy’s crotch level. There is also the buff, naked back of a woman, washing her hair. “I am critical of men. Who are these ambiguous clueless creatures? I tend to elevate women,” Cockrill says.
In Men with Arrows Plan Our Future (2004) yet another mother with a revealing neckline kneels on the floor with a basket of laundry; her young son stands above her, looking down her blouse at her cleavage. Above him, enigmatically, is a streamlined 1960s suburban house punctuated with empty thought balloons; on the left side of the painting, marked with an arrow, is an image of the Gemini space capsule, making a landing as its parachute deflates.
Recently, Cockrill has been embellishing his dark American pastiches with snippets of fabric cut from both his own and thrift-store shirts: a sort of literal deconstruction. In Untitled History with Double Heads (2017) two young girls are patiently piecing together a robot made up of collaged shirt snippets, complete with a helmet proudly bearing the U.S. flag. The Egyptians (2016/2018) is a similar image, in which two older girls, in flat hieroglyphic poses, are also, as it were, building their own man. A man akin, with his cookie-cutter template, to Cockrill’s pared-down, surrealistic Existential Man.
Like the girls in The Egyptians, Cockrill is constructing a multi-layered story, in disjointed but recognizable bits and pieces that range from past to present to future to past again, from figurative to formalist. “Styles that would normally look like a later evolution for an artist appear out of order. This is intentional,” the artist explains. “If it appears that I am jumping around, I’m only building a layered story. It may be my story, or it may be an American story.”
Or, to judge from the work itself, both.
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for numerous publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine,
The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and ARTnews, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick
Killing in Art; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty; and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open.