Interview: Mike Cockrill
My Mother said she was a doll.
That was the day I learned clowns aren’t really smiling. The smile is just painted on their faces. That was the day I saw a clown in person for the first time. Close up. Walking through the crowd that was feeding towards the circus tent. The clown was walking away from the tent and towards us. My mother held my hand. The crowd parted around him. I studied him as he glided by. He was tall and had no expression at all. He avoided all eye contact. His face was as cold as a stone. Over his expressionless lips was painted an enormous, greasy, red and white smile that rose up over his cheeks and glistened in the harsh sunlight. His face was blue and his eyes were enlarged by thick white paint that rose up onto his forehead.
I remember very little about the circus itself. Almost nothing. But I remember the tent. The tent was enormous and great lengths of rope ran here and there and rose up to the tops of tremendous ladders and poles. Lights swooped around the darkened space - chasing phantom figures that darted in the rings. I did not understand what they were doing. It was all a spectacle, the meaning of which escaped me, though at one point a man I immediately disliked, paraded out a group of dodging and resentful lions that he tormented with a long whip that he whirled and snapped with an air of grandiose superiority.
And then the girl fell. She looked almost thrown. The clowns threw her from the top of the ladder as if she was no longer any use to them. She missed the net and slammed into the floor in a sickening heap. Everyone left immediately, murmuring as they pressed out. My mother said the show was over. But what about the girl who fell? She was a doll my mother said. “Just a doll.”
Are there things you don’t tell a five year old child?
Are there things the child will remember years later and wonder about?
Will the child know for sure if he just saw a falling doll?
They don’t use dolls on the trapeze do they….?
The last time I caught up with you on Facebook you were painting more abstractly. The works were still reminiscent of another era but totally different than what your gallery was expecting. What has happened since then?
In 2012 I decided to “break my work apart,” and announced it on FB so I would actually have to do it. Now there were witnesses. I had been trying to change my approach in my studio for a couple of years but kept backing off from really taking the leap. But by the summer of 2012 I just went modernist in my work. Where my painting had been referencing mid-20th century children’s book illustration and figures like Norman Rockwell, suddenly I was referencing, Picasso, DeKooning, Giacometti and Francis Bacon. When my dealer read about the change in an interview he called and told me that I was “destroying my career.” However, he eventually came to my studio, saw something he liked in the new direction, and offered me a solo show on the spot.
My “Existential Man” exhibition in 2013 was an entirely different look and style than anything I had shown before. The paintings depicted a skinny man in white office shirt and tie struggling through existential crisis. In one image he is literally falling apart and trying to rake himself back together.
As my work has evolved over the past 4 years I have begun using collage elements and have recently been using men’s shirts that I buy at the thrift store and cut into pieces to glue onto the canvas. They are exploding businessmen. Businessmen Bunnies actually.
Tell us more of the bunnies. I see many of your followers are asking for more clown paintings.
My “Baby Doll Clown Killer” paintings remain very popular but everyone understands that that was only one series of works among many. Rather than asking me to make more, I find people very curious about what I am doing next, and also curious about how my different series fit together. People are pretty perceptive and point out how my work has usually been humorous while often being unsettling. There is a cheerfulness mixed with the darkness, so to speak. Little girls in party dresses conducting genocide against circus clowns. Children’s book illustration style works with sexually charge undertones. My military bunnies are hooded and menacing constructions of cut up studio cloths that gaze at us through eye slits, but also sport bunny ears. I have a series of “Classroom Portraits” depicting rows of children lined up like tombstones with minimal features. And then I have my businessman bunnies being blown to pieces. But they are also like abstract paintings. The way a painting is put together formally is a huge part of my process. I work in different vernaculars.
Have you ever stopped yourself from working on a series because it is not well received?
It’s really hard in art to determine what “well received” means. My first solo show (in New York in 1985) was widely reviewed in publications including The New York Times, Art in America, and the Village Voice. All the reviews ran from harsh to bitterly negative. I was showing very brash and explicit cartoon paintings at that time – some involving political figures like JKF and Ronald Reagan. One painting from this early exhibit called “The Cuban Missile Crisis” will be shown at the Garner Art Center in New York this fall in show about the 1980s. Another was shown in Chelsea two years ago. These once critically condemned paintings are starting to be revisited as historically significant. Sometimes a particular series of mine may take 20 years or more before it becomes “well received.” The audience is always changing, and our perception of particular works of art changes along with it. I know this. If I paint a series it only ends when I feel it has run its course. I’ve never done two shows alike, and by the time a series is shown I’m usually already on to the next phase. I may start a new direction but then quickly abandon it if it doesn’t feel right to me. I’m always pushing my work. Even when I’ve come up with a very popular series like the “Baby Doll Clown Killers” and sell virtually all of them, I still ended it. There comes a point when you feel you’ve exhausted a concept and it is time to push in a new direction – even if it means failing in your studio for a while. I’m restless and curious. Art is like a conversation; A conversation with art history. A conversation with current culture. And a conversation with yourself. If I’m at the table having a conversation I’m not going to repeat the thing I just said. Everyone has already heard it. What else do I have to say?
How do you feel about artist statements?
Artist statements are the homework for artists. This is part of the “professionalization” of being an artist. On one hand, art making is being treated like a mid-level management job. Still, Van Gogh wrote statements, of a sort – they were letters to his brother Theo. DeKooning made statements but they were probably in a bar with fellow artists. Now every time you apply for a grant or residency or gig of some sort you have to provide an artist statement. This may also be Duchamp’s fault. Art has become a conceptual enterprise. People want to know – Okay, what’s the deal with this mound of stuff in the gallery? Explain yourself!
I like reading artists statements – if only out of a morbid curiosity. I want to see if the artist is full of shit or not. Hah. Good artists usually know how to write a decent artist statement. They’re used to talking about their work and develop a sound set of talking points. Every artists needs to be able to give the viewer, or grant panel, something to go on. It just needs to be a captivating read and seem to be about the work. The truth is, an artist can’t make lame work better by writing a nice statement about it. But I do find that statements often have information in them that helps me understand the point of a work. If you saw Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s mound of candy in a gallery and knew nothing about it you would have wildly random ideas about what the work was. However, once you know that the work is about his partner Ross Laycock and his ideal body weight, 175 pounds, before he slowly lost weight and succumbed to AIDS - and that you take a piece of candy away and eat it until that same weight of candy in the gallery, 175 pounds, disappears, you get it. In this case a statement about the work is critical to understanding the art piece. But then there are a whole lot of other things going on about the piece: the color and the fact that it’s candy,,, and you eat it, etc. Maybe not all this should be spelled out. Viewers have a job to do to. They need to bring their own meaning to art. In the end art is not about the artist. It’s about us. The artist just makes the work, but doesn’t need to tell us how to think.
I love the reference to Felix. How do you feel about craft versus art - meaning if someone knows how to paint, does that make them an artist?
No. What makes a person an artist is the relationship their work has with the viewer. Culture decides what art is going to look like at any particular moment. Culture completes the transaction between maker and beholder. As an artist you can make anything you want – but if no one is ready to accept it as art, it isn’t art. But it might become art later. It may actually be art now, and then no longer be art in the future. Future culture may not even recognize a work that was once art as art, and disregard it. Repurpose it. Scrap it. And it will be gone.
At times I actually like using non-traditional art materials, like discarded paperback books, cut up cloths, wire and string etc, in making art. It frees me up from my own conventions. Traditional approaches like painting and drawing can often hold you back creatively. By using other approaches an artist can actually find new forms of expression. I’ve also used discredited forms like cartooning and school book illustration to make my paintings. If I was afraid to cross boundaries like craft vs art, fine art vs illustration, high art vs low art, I never would have made the art I have made and exhibited. I’ve had plenty of people tell me what I was doing wasn’t art, but there were always others saying, yes it is art. It balances out. And people do change their minds after awhile as well. When you challenge yourself you also challenge others to think differently.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1953, Mike Cockrill has lived and worked in Brooklyn since 1979. Blending the playful and the serious, Cockrill has employed an ever-evolving repertory of formal approaches to develop a body of work that investigate not only the different ways imagery is put together, but how those formal choices give form and meaning to the content found in his work, which is often humorous yet psychologically dark. His art has referenced cartooning, academic figuration, children’s illustration, Modernism, kitsch and collage. Cockrill has had over 20 solo shows and has been featured in numerous publications. He paintings were most recently included in the Outlaw Bible of American Art, 2016, published by Last Gasp.
Painting in the Header: The Birth Of Venus | 78x54 | 2015