Mike Cockrill has a way of tweaking his audience. I first saw Cockrill’s work at Semaphore Gallery in the East Village of New York, when he was collaborating with Judge Hughes some thirty-odd years ago. In those days, with the resurgence of narrative/figurative painting solidly in the fray, Cockrill and Hughes still managed to shock their audience with all sorts of violent and sexually charged vignettes in which no taboo was left unchurned. In fact, every time I leaf through the ground breaking graphic novel from the earliest days of their collaborations, The White Papers (1982), I feel like I am doing something seedy and illegal.
Cockrill gained much more universal and international success with his Clown Killer paintings, which were part of his retro 1940s/1950s style of erotically charged good/bad girl and good/bad boy paintings. In both, Cockrill reveals an incredibly beautiful color sense that eases his audience through some of the most discomforting, and at times titillating imagery one is likely to come across in an art gallery.
Mike Cockrill, "The Clean Up Guy," 2012, oil on canvas, 48 x 30 in.; Courtesy of the artist and KENT FINE ART LLC.
For his current show at Kent Fine Art LLC, Cockrill gives us The Existential Man. It is a huge leap from the sumptuous and fleshy surfaces of his earlier work, though his eye for color and his impeccable painting skills remain. Now we see a deeper focus on the structural basis of form and composition. Here, Cockrill presents 1960s-ish men and women who are steadfastly confined by the banality of their lives. Forlorn and hopeless, these men and women carry on unflinchingly as they literally fall apart at work, at home or en route.
Stylistically, Cockrill mixes brilliant touches of Modernism in the form of geometric accents to give these works a tinge of movement that further animates his subjects. You can’t help but feel sorry for the men and women he depicts as they sweep or rake up their dislodged eyeballs, even though they seem more or less calm and composed. Is this a metaphor of our generation as we lose sight of our personal dreams amongst all the static and hype; or is it an indication that our frailties can be our strength? Real life, the monotony, it all falls short yet we see in works like Good Save, where the subject utilizes his empty ice cream cone to catch his falling eye, that we can improve a bad situation with a simple catch. I am most impressed by Sleepwalker (2013), Clean Up Guy (2013), and in particular In Box (2013) – where the artist shows us the true nature of defeat, and the banality of the corporate cog as the man who operates within the In Box makes paper hats and airplanes out of co-workers thoughts and concerns.
Mike Cockrill, "Good Save,", 2013, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 in.; Courtesy of the artist and KENT FINE ART LLC.
In addition to these unforgettable paintings, a series of Cockrill’s ink drawings (The Ink Spots) from 1997 surround The Conversation (2013), a work comprised of fourteen freestanding sculpted figures on one large pedestal. The sculptures, like the large paintings in the next room, are reminiscent of the 1960s in terms of fashion and social interactions via subtle changes in body language and positioning. And if it weren’t for the paintings in the next room, one would be most inclined to think of Alberto Giacometti here. Instead, with the understanding of the social and psychological references, you would be more inclined to look at the intricacies of the relationships, or the social and gender status that he so subtly introduces.
The drawings, on the other hand, which date back to 1997, have a far more experimental or improvisational bent. Here, we see another very inflammatory taboo, ‘black face,’ recurring in a number of works. Working with and around what one presumes to be haphazard ink droplets and spills, Cockrill culls a most disquieting synopsis of the foibles and follies of mankind.
(Image on top: Mike Cockrill, "Sleep Walker" (detail), 2013, oil on canvas, 58 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist and KENT FINE ART LLC.)