Art lovers salivate over painter Will Cotton’s collection
Story by Jennifer Wright / Photography by Kareem Black
There is a place where beautiful women loll about in tiaras made of lollipops, shaded by giant gingerbread houses and macaroon trees. Where? On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, of course. More specifically, in the studio of renowned artist Will Cotton, whose mouth-watering paintings depict a paradise filled with sweets and sensual delights.
To be fair, that is also an accurate description of Candy Land. So it comes as little surprise that Cotton began his career attempting to recreate scenes from the classic board game. He loved the game growing up. “It seemed real to me, as real as anything seems when you’re a child,” he said.
Not that he limited his artistic efforts exclusively to the yummy game. His other early works included depictions of the Pillsbury doughboy and the Nestlé chocolate bunny. It’s all slightly reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s classic soup cans, although arguably a good deal more delicious. It’s no wonder that in addition to (and in contrast of) the plethora of pastries, Cotton’s studio also proudly houses one of Warhol’s own Brillo boxes.
“I think Warhol has been an influence on almost everybody’s work,” Cotton says, acknowledging his forerunner. “He made it okay to look anywhere for art.”
However, unlike Warhol — or for that matter, Wayne Thiebaud, to whom his work is often compared — Cotton focuses on creating landscapes rather than still lifes. Here he draws his inspiration largely from The Hudson River School. Cotton recalls that going as a child to see the Frederic Church estate made a huge impact on him. While his paintings may be more fanciful, they still depict a world that most viewers can easily imagine walking into and inhabiting; a stark contrast from the detached feeling of gazing down upon an object that a still life can evoke.
In his utopian landscapes, the pastries themselves are very real. Cotton works principally from props, and as a result, devotes considerable time to baking cakes, pies, cupcakes, and all manner of delectable items. The creations, which abound throughout the studio, are meticulously assembled as his ideas dictate. The fact that he worked as a “passable” contractor and construction worker, until being represented by the Mary Boone Gallery in 1999, proves helpful in terms of assembly.
The use of props, as well as the fact that Cotton occasionally works from photographs, may surprise anyone who simply views the artist’s works as whimsical products of a very active imagination.
“I work from my imagination at the very beginning of the process,” Cotton says. “I’ll just have an idea, and I’ll think ‘What would it be like to see a waterfall that would be made out of root beer?’ Then I’ll make some sketches, go on to construct the maquettes, and make a new set of drawings, and so on.”
Yet even with this expressed sense of order and discipline, given the extent to which the drawings and paintings reference a glorious dream world (at least to anyone with a sweet tooth), there is also a fantastical imagination, blended with an educational foundation, at work. Mythological descriptions of paradise, literary references, and a strong grounding in art history influence Cotton’s work. One of his most recent paintings featured the word “Arcadia,” and another was entitled “Utopia.” An earlier painting makes reference to biblical tradition with an abundance of milk and honey. Indeed, one book prefaces Cotton’s paintings with a description of Luilekkerland, a Dutch storybook land, circa 1546.
“I come at that kind of imagery through art history,” Cotton said. “That’s how I’m comfortable with it, because then it strikes me as an idea that’s part of pop culture rather than theology. It’s an idea that people of any denomination can have a common understanding of.”
But ultimately, the paintings are about pleasure. And the pleasures Will Cotton depicts prove to have lasting and universal appeal. With his recent successful show at Mary Boone Gallery, it appears art collectors continue to crave his work. They leave anyone with an appetite for painting or bon-bons downright famished for more.