Will Cotton creates candy coated luscious lands that once occupied our childhood dreams. Worlds of color, confectionary, cakes, and creams, tantalize, hypnotize and seduce like Ulysses’ Sirens. And, like the fabled Sirens whose beauty and seductive voices lured wayward sailors to the rocks to meet their untimely death, Cotton’s creations too hold darker secrets. There is far more than meets the eye in his sweet settings where melting chocolate bathes female flesh, and candy canes stand as pillars in a world of gingerbread houses and cotton candy skies. Cotton’s paintings and sculptures explore metaphors of excess, hedonism, addiction, escapism, decay, and our own human fallibilities.
Having always been fascinated with Cotton’s work and the subject matter he chooses to deliver his message, I recently spoke to him about his early childhood inspirations, themes of indulgence and excess, using celebrity in his work, the importance of creating a utopian world to mask our follies, and what happens when these worlds fall into decay.
Portrait by Tatijana Shoan
AS IF: I want to talk about the two influences that impacted you when you were younger. You spoke about growing up near the estate of Hudson River painter, Frederic Edwin Church, and the impact it had on you. Also, the 1567 painting by Pieter the Elder Bruegel, The Land of Cockayne, which depicts people in a food and drink stupor, which was a comment on famine at the time. I wanted to know how these two references influenced you.
Will Cotton: Frederic Church was the first example I had of what an artist is, and how an artist lives. I grew up in New Paltz, New York, which is across the river from the Frederic Church estate. I was maybe 12 when my mom took me to visit the estate, and it was there where I got to see his paintings. He lived a very interesting bourgeois-bohemian life. The Olana—Frederic Church’s estate—is fantastic. It’s a kind of a big confection built in the 19th century with Moorish architecture ideas. This place was very impactful, and I was excited by the idea that someone could actually have a life like that. I discovered the Bruegel painting years later. I had started my studies at The Cooper Union in 1983 and they had a nice library. I was looking through the art books to familiarize myself with their material and to find stuff I loved. This painting called The Land of Cockayne caught my eye because it seemed like a dream. The painter imagined paradise on earth during a time of unthinkable famine. I started to read about some of the utopian communities and thought about the relationship between how we imagine the best possible world with an underpinning of darkness and the seeds of its own undoing.
I will also say, the landscapes Frederic Church painted, along with some of his contemporaries, weren’t impressionist, they weren’t realistic, they were fantasies. They painted in a certain light, and in the case of Church and his friend Bierstadt, that light was grand, and beautiful, and elevating. In other words, it was a particular kind of landscape fantasy he was painting, the way Pieter the Elder Bruegel did, and I’m really interested in fantasy. I grew up with Pop Art which says, here’s the glossy advertising version of life, and here’s the celebrity. I do like the artificiality of that, but that has never been what drives me. There are a lot of realists working now and back then who are very interested in reality, warts and all, but that’s never been my thing. The world is dark and awful enough, and I would rather paint a fantasy version of it.
You sourced themes from your early work from contemporary advertisements like the Nestle Quick bunny and you used these pop advertisement icons to evoke desire, specifically food-based desire. Your work evolved into creating imagery of imaginary landscapes made entirely of sweets. You also started introducing nude and semi-nude models into these landscapes as visual references of indulgence and languor, while they were also referencing poses from the Old Masters. With this in mind. I want you to finish these sentences for me: I paint because…
I paint because I’ve had an idea that I feel so excited about and so strongly about, that it’s worth the effort to bring it into existence.