September 2012: Follow Your Own Path: Mike Cockrill Interview by Joe Heaps Nelson
Which makes it all the more amazing that he has chucked his old style out the window, and he's painting a la Picasso and Braque, circa 1910-12. This has been going on for a couple of months, at most. It's a sudden and radical transformation. So far, he has retained his characteristic palette, which is somewhat subdued - generally light hues, dusty roses, springy greens, lemon yellows with other colors in them, nice use of unbleached titanium, but the vocabulary of forms is all different. Everything else has gone right to formal abstraction. I mean all the way. There are a couple of tall vertical paintings that evoke totem poles, one unfinished, and there it appears he's going in a synthetic cubist direction, and he's pulling old portraits of girls out of the racks, and getting cubist all over their faces. Mike Cockrill is a cubist now, or as he might say, "high modernist". So, stick around. We're talking about painting!
Heaps: Mike, I'm eager to hear what you have to say about these new paintings, but I want to get some background in the conversation too. My goal is to make everybody get an idea of what kind of painter you are.
Cockrill: I've done straight ahead figurative painting for about 40 years. I was academically trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I was painting like Edward Hopper and Thomas Eakins when I was in school. That was the time people considered painting dead. The big struggle was to figure out how to make painting not dead, how to paint something relevant, that led me to switching over to cartoon painting and using completely over the top subject matter. Kennedy assassination, incest in the American home, I was working with a collaborator who was fearless. It made me kind of fearless. Together we created these pieces as Cockrill/Judge Hughes, and that was a big break from my academic formal training. But I think every 10 years I feel like I get to the point where I understand the form, and I need to do something different to keep myself interested and growing as an artist. After the Cockrill/Judge Hughes cartoon paintings, which were acrylic, I switched over to oil, or back to oil, trying to figure out how to paint a figure again. It kind of culminated in the Baby Doll/Clown Killer series in '95. Those were the first paintings that people actually wanted to buy. And it was the first time I got press that was positive. After doing about 20 of those, and selling most of them, I began to look at childrens' illustration, childrens' books, I started doing tableaus of boys, girls, moms, the kind of sexual awakening, coming of age. That sort of genre. I painted that up until this year, still pushing the narrative nostalgic figuration. It looked like it was from my childhood. I set it in that era so that if I'm doing a boy looking at a mom without a shirt on, it was funnier and more satirical and socially significant to make it in the 60s, because it's a look back at your childhood, the things that I was aware of growing up, that the girl next door was changing over into a young woman, these kind of things are really charged, and not something that you are supposed to talk about. Not anything that anybody wanted to acknowledge. And they still don't in our culture, want to acknowledge that children, at 9, 10, 11 start becoming aware of their bodies and the bodies of each other. This is supposed to be buried until we're 18. So when I was painting it, some people got really upset. They called it child pornography, they called me a pervert, a pedophile, and that's so dishonest. Because other people come up and say, Are you kidding? This is totally my experience too when I was a kid, I had a big crush on the girl in front of me in class. So to deny that that exists is completely corrupt.
Heaps: Do you find that in the art world, because everyone is so sophisticated, there is a prejudice against nostalgia? Like nostalgia would be a bad thing to have in your paintings, and this is part of the reason that nobody likes Norman Rockwell, for example?
Cockrill: I don't think that's really true, because if you look at John Currin, or Neo Rauch, or some of the figurative painters that came along in the 90s, they were working with costumes, or a look that seemed divorced from our moment. They were turn of the century, or Neo Rauch, I don't know what costumes those people are wearing. It doesn't look like today.
Cockrill: Yeah, exactly. I thought all that stuff was great, and I was doing it too. I loved that stuff. Who did it first? I was doing sexually charged imagery in the 80s, so some people thought I was a little ahead of the curve when they started seeing Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin doing it in the 90s, but I had been doing it for 10 years and getting a lot of shit for it! They were able to dress it up in kind of a goofy kitsch look that deactivated the content.
Heaps: I feel like your work is kind of that way too though, containing elements of goofy kitsch.
Cockrill: It is, but in some of my boys and girls it's not really that kitschy. It's nostalgic, it's the 50s, but they aren't making a stupid face, or a goofy expression, they look like they are really into each other! Hahahahaha! Which they are. I think it was a personal feeling this summer that I needed to break into a new direction, and I have been trying to break into a new direction for the past year, but I wasn't really sure how to do it. I was painting faces, like different kinds of expressions, like really angry or really goofy, trying to deconstruct my imagery, and then I hit on the idea that the face is completely obliterated and deconstructed in a cubist way. That was the breakthrough, to deconstruct the face, and what I deconstructed it with was high modernism.
Heaps: It's funny, because these kind of parallel developments in painting 100 years ago. This just occurs to me now, but isn't it about 100 years ago that Picasso and Braque started doing paintings like this!
Cockrill: I didn't want to go back and look at them. I have purposely not looked at modernist painting, because I remember it. It's probably a continuation of nostalgic figuration, in a way.
Heaps: These paintings look like they were portraits of girls, they were old paintings, and you have obscured the faces with cubist painting... There's a little de Kooning in there too.
Heaps: The other thing is, if you're doing a full scene like that, it can be interesting to leave some evidence of the process, maybe some sketchy parts, or some parts that are just drawn, but at times that can feel contrived. It's tough to pull off.
Cockrill: It is tough. If it happens by accident while I'm working, that's a good way, but to purposely leave it unfinished, self consciously...
Heaps: That's kind of, almost a trend right now. People are getting their paintings 3/4 finished, nobody wants to make just a realist painting any more, because then it looks like you are retarded or something. Like you don't know.
Cockrill: Yeah. Well John Currin goes ahead and makes it, but he distorts it. It's so odd.
Heaps: I think he is great. I love him.
Cockrill: I do too, I like his work. I liked it more earlier, when it was weirder. Same with Lisa Yuskavage, I liked their work earlier, it was uglier and stranger. I think he knows he's in some kind of cul de sac now. Once you start going toward really explicit sexuality, show the vagina and the penis, if that's your shock content, where are you going to go after that?
Heaps: Bestiality maybe?
Cockrill: Well I did all that in the White Papers, I did all that in the 80s, so I know the dead end. I know what that feels like. I had to change my painting style. Also with the nostalgic figuration, the boy/girl, mom/daughter, I felt I had hit a wall and I didn't know where to go, and so my only way out was to break my work apart.
Heaps: That looks like what's happening here, it's just... shattering.
Cockrill: Interesting. I think it's interesting that people respond so much. They could have said why did you do that I love your paintings, but they say I love your paintings and I like this too, which is good, that's what you hope for if you're gonna radically shift gear.
Heaps: Well, you are good at what you're doing. People look forward to seeing what you're doing. I know I would always make sure to check out your show when you had work up. I have been influenced by you.
Cockrill: That's nice, thanks. I think a lot of people have actually. Hahaha!
Heaps: Or at least I felt like I was exploring similar territory in my work, and then finding out that you had been there before. So I was always interested in what you were doing. You know, maybe this is like when Dylan went electric.
Cockrill: Yeah, right. I think in a way, a good artist can shift form, and it's still good. Look at Picasso, he could have painted realistically, it doesn't matter what form he picked, they're all pretty awesome.
Heaps: There's such a facility.
Cockrill: And Dylan... and we are not comparing me to these people! I'm just saying that in the way these great geniuses work, Dylan shifted from folk to electric and it was pretty seamless, he could do it. And the Beatles talk about that too. Like, you write pop songs, but what if it was the 30s? They said well we would have written in that style. They're writing in the style that sells. There's a much bigger commercial aspect to the Beatles, that they willingly acknowledge, than the critics want to admit.
Cockrill: They built their tricks; they didn't have a big bag when they started. They were pushing themselves. I think the point is, for any artist, push yourself. Once you know how to do it, it's time to stop doing it. That's my feeling. Because you start making the same painting you made just before, it doesn't look as good. [indicating work on the studio wall] I did that here, I did that painting and I wanted to make another one, and it was, ohhhh, I can't make another one, so then I pushed that one, the Bride. It went to a good place. And that was good! An artist is always battling in the studio to not repeat yourself, but to actually surprise yourself. I did this last night, I grabbed a couple old paintings to paint over, and I don't know, I was in a mood where I did that, I said I really like that, I'm not going to do any more.
Heaps: This is the one where you painted the dark eyes on the girl, this is an old portrait painting.
Cockrill: It's from '92. I squared it off, changed her hair, put the dark eyes on it. I call it paintover.
Heaps: For somebody who loved that period of your work, it's like you're vandalizing your old work.
Cockrill: I'm vandalizing my earlier paintings, in some cases I was not satisfied. These are from a magazine store, they were studio headshots of girls who wanted to be models, and so I painted them, but they kind of needed something. It took me 20 years to figure out that they needed to be grafittied over! Hahaha! So it's still my painting underneath. I think if I got those at a thrift store and painted on them, I think it would have a different energy then the fact that it's my early work I painted on.
Heaps: I think so too. Jim Shaw went and did that.
Cockrill: Schnabel got a painting at a thrift store, and he painted over it, and then he made big paintings of the whole thing. He also painted over circus tarps and things like that. Salle had other people paint parts of the painting...
Heaps: I hate his work.
Cockrill: His work is dead. It's dead not because of the technique or anything, it's just that he is dead. He's just corrupt as an artist, because he's not honest. It's not because I sued him, it's not because he took from the White Papers, I think it's OK that he took from the White Papers.
Heaps: I never knew that you sued him.
Cockrill: I did. I complained that he used the White Papers. But now, looking back at Richard Prince, and a lot of artists who use other work, I think it's OK that Salle used my work. I take it back. I think there's too much restriction now on the creative process. Asking Prince to destroy those paintings, that he did of that photographer, it's appalling. It's a crime against art. They're not like the other artist's work; there's no confusion. It has to be sorted out. Does the artist transform the work? I think Prince transformed it; I think Salle transformed it, I don't know. Certainly Koons transformed the String of Puppies. That's a whole other issue. My disdain of Salle's work is that he's so cautious, so conservatorial in his own oeuvre that he protects it, and he won't grow. It bothers me when artists don't grow, that have every resource. He has money, he's got paint, he's got the assistants, do something fucking interesting! Don't keep making these products for rich people!
Heaps: It's been a lot of years, hasn't it.
Cockrill: Yeah, he's just making souvenirs, that's what bothers me.
Heaps: I love this! It's scandalous!
Cockrill: I don't care. I've already been so scandalous in my whole art career, what the fuck. Salle's paintings had jarring juxtapositions, because it was fresh. And it's not fresh any more, it's predictable. You can't do those same guitar riffs today that you were doing in the 80s. I heard them already. Also, he doesn't paint enough of his own work. A lot of them are factory painted, and they look it.
Heaps: Salle used to have that wrongness, and Fischl had it for sure. And Fischl will still stick up for Salle, because they're pals.
Cockrill: They're fine. I hate to criticize another artist who's just making a living, but you get to a point where the edge is gone, and it starts to become dilettante wall decorations for rich people and that's what their work looks like to me. Also, I saw Eric Fischl at a lecture, he was not willing to discuss or consider kitsch, bad painting, irony. I think it's over, it's good to avoid it, but if you're going to discuss the history of painting in the 20th century you have to talk about that. It goes back to Picabia. Picabia is the father of bad painting. It's a way out of academism. That's the value of it; it's a way to get out of good taste. By the 70s you had the best taste paintings ever, Agnes Martin and Brice Marden painting the most elegant paintings you can make, and Diebenkorn. These things are elegant. That's why you had to escape.
Heaps: Guston is a guy who escaped.
Cockrill: He escaped by doing these cartoony things that are brilliant, and way more monumental and dynamic than anything that the other people were painting.
Heaps: And not that he wasn't an interesting painter before, he was a good abstract expressionist.
Cockrill: I like his little humble abstract paintings; humble I call them because the little brushstrokes are just so not action, male, testosterone, it was like being in the room with a kind of sense of failure. I like that.
Heaps: He painted north, south, east, west, never diagonal.
Cockrill: That's interesting. I love Diebenkorn, by the way, and I like Agnes Martin's work. I love all their work too much. The problem is I like it so much, the only way I could get out of it was painting John Kennedy with his head being blown up. That was fresh.
Heaps: Why did you sue David Salle?
Cockrill: OK. He used my drawing of Oswald being shot, from the White Papers, twice, in a major painting. He reproduced it in What is the Reason for your Visit to Germany, 2 feet high on the painting, with a big, bent over nude, exactly like this, and instead of the penis you had a saxophone. He deconstructed this beautifully for collectors. Anyway, it was at Castelli Gallery, I went to see it because it was the most important show in Soho. I was looking at the show, and I thought, I can't believe Julian Schnabel even still talks to you, because you are so ripping off Julian Schnabel in every little thing you're doing. Like doing a painting and putting a big smear going across it, but doing it carefully. So then he put a tornado of brushstrokes, and I was thinking, you are completely ripping off Julian Schnabel. In fact, I found out later that they had stopped talking to each other because Julian thought the same thing. So while I was looking at the show, I was like, whoa, that really looks like my drawing. I thought, that's impossible, nobody knows who I am! David Salle is like the most important artist in New York, how could he be doing my drawing? So I went home and I got the White Papers, I brought it to Judge Hughes and we looked at it, we had the art book, yeah, he used our drawing!
Heaps: What kind of guy is Judge Hughes?
Cockrill: He's from the Midwest, he was a carpenter, he was in the theatre, he's very theatrical, loves subversive theatre. His favorite play is Bertolt Brecht, Threepenny Opera. So he felt, when I met him in '79, he was lecturing me that paintings were dead skins you hang on a wall, art had to engage people, art had to just completely assault the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. I was bored of my own work, I didn't have a direction. I thought it was very intriguing. My wife left, I was willing to listen to other voices. He started suggesting some ideas for paintings and drawings, and they were so outrageous, I said I'll draw that. From there it took off into a whole collaboration.
Heaps: So you're at Castelli Gallery, looking at David Salle's show, and you recognize that...
Cockrill: He had used our work! So we made a satirical flyer. We were picketing the gallery. We created a street performance in front of the most important show, in front of the most important gallery in New York City. It said, Dear Castelli patrons, you are entering the scene of a crime. The crime, copyright infringement, theft, it was a Jeremiad, a wide-eyed tract, aimed at people who knew it was clearly satirical, and that street performance was our way of dealing with this theft of our property. Jerry Ordover came down from Castelli Gallery and said you can have your fun today, but have your lawyer call us. A really nice guy, he never gave me a hard time about the street performance, about suing Castelli. He basically said, if you don't like it, sue us. It wasn't really something I wanted to do, but I thought maybe we'll make a trade, give me a drawing or a print, I don't care if you use my work, but acknowledge it. Then press started coming out about the show, talking about this drawing of Oswald being shot, you're reading a review of the show in which the reviewer said, when I saw the drawing of Oswald being shot, it all made sense. It's like, that's my fucking drawing! Oswald being shot is the reason that it all makes sense! I felt like he was taking from the White Papers this understanding of American culture that we were mining, between sex and violence and political assassination, we put it all together in the White Papers, and he was putting it in Castelli, and that wasn't fair. It wasn't taking a soup can off a shelf. It was taking an underground artist's work, and running with it in Castelli. I wanted to clear the record. So, we went public. And it was like, you don't own Oswald being shot. No, but turning him into a cartoon, being shot, is the idea. So he was represented by John Koegel. John Koegel handled the case also for Jeff Koons and the String of Puppies. John Koegel was extremely angry at me for suing on the basis of copyright. He thought it hurt the art world; he resented it for years, and he badmouthed me. Eventually, when he saw my paintings in the 90s, he actually walked up to my dealer and said I have to say one thing, Mike Cockrill became a good painter. So to me, that was a nice way to make peace, and I think he got over it. We settled. We didn't even take it to trial. We just took 2,000 bucks, because they were going to throw a lot of money at us, and we just could not afford to really take Leo Castelli to court. But we made our point! It was my drawing.
Heaps: So, then you were unpopular in the art world?
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