Like many art enthusiasts, my annual income prohibits the acquisition of actual masterpieces, and, as such, I’ve found the best way to possess the works on my wish list is to purchase books by the artists I covet. Collecting monographs is not entirely unlike collecting bricks, or at least it seems that way when living a relatively nomadic life, but collectors tend to defy (or at least deny) common sense, and I am no exception. So, when I learned that Will Cotton’s first monograph* was being released in New York, I did what any addict would do: I took an eight-hour bus ride to New York City to get my fix.

For the record, I’m not just a fan of Will Cotton’s art. I am a fan of Will Cotton period.

Having worked for a slew of galleries among a number of notorious art world tyrants, Cotton remains one of the nicest and most genuine people I’ve met in the industry. He’s so nice, in fact, that it’s almost questionable. A major downside of the high-powered contemporary art world is that sincerity is often rendered suspect. So let me clarify: Cotton really is nice. His work, on the other hand, can be quite naughty.
The proverbial Christmas question asks us: naughty or nice? For children, there’s one obvious answer to ensure Santa’s material reward; for adults, the insinuations are infinitely more complicated, as is the holiday season itself. We are a society of consumers (lest we forget the trouble it’s caused us) and, come December, it is our annual right to revel in the ecstasy of unbridled commerce and consumption. Like Oscar Wilde so perfectly put it, we “can resist everything except temptation.” And the time to indulge is upon us. Tis the season, yet again. We are, quite simply, insatiable.

Which is why when Will Cotton paints this word – insatiable – in festive red and white candy canes, the symbolism is bittersweet. Wouldn’t it be a relief to return once more to that bygone age of wide-eyed innocence, when the only anxiety keeping us awake at night was the number of days still remaining until Christmas? In Cotton’s art, we are both reminded of our youth and yet consciously removed from it. His paintings linger in the fragile space between childhood fantasy and adult entertainment, poised at the moment when impulse often trumps the reason bred by maturity. As adults, we are well aware that too much sugar rots the teeth, but knowledge and self-control are two wildly disparate attributes when it comes to pleasure.

Painted with Old Master technical prowess, but infused with (lolli)pop content, Cotton’s compositions depict female nudes lounging wistfully among cotton candy clouds, wrapped up in silvery baking foil or dripping with melted ice cream. Sweet temptation is the central theme of these visual narratives, allowing our inner children to run amok through peppermint landscapes, while the artist appeases our adult psyches with sexual innuendo and satirical social commentary. It’s a delicate balance, one that could easily slip into hollow kitsch or slide from beauty to profanity and yet, these paintings, much like the artist himself, are secured by their sincerity. They delight in the act of desire itself, rather than in gratifying those impulses.

Furthermore, Cotton is neither criticizing our tendencies to covet nor our need for sweet stimuli. If anything, his work revels in this common denominator of human nature, permitting our rediscovery of Candy Land’s “Arcadia” and the innate longing for the unattainable. Born in Melrose, MA in 1965, Cotton studied at Cooper Union in New York City, as well as the Beaux Arts Academy in France. He completed his education at the New York Academy of Art in 1988 and is currently represented by a number of blue-chip galleries worldwide where his paintings sell for exceptionally high prices. However, despite Cotton’s impressive exhibition
history, the artist’s work is perhaps most recognizable from his recent collaboration with pop sensation Katy Perry, who sent him an email this past year inquiring about available pieces. He invited the singer to pose for him. It was a match made in edible heaven. Cotton’s signature agility for transposing artistic and cultural genres made Perry an ideal subject, and his painting of the singer nude and adrift upon a cotton-candy cloud adorned her most recent album cover. His art direction for Perry’s “California Gurls” music video exposed his aesthetic to an entirely new audience far beyond the art world’s highbrow borders.
Still, this foray into mainstream culture is perfectly in keeping with Cotton’s character. His oeuvre deftly intertwines the cheeky flirtation of 1950’s pin-ups with regal portraiture reminiscent of Sartre, and the ironic pop symbolism of Warhol, Koons, or Rosenquist with Old Master brushwork and allusions to celestial kingdoms. The release of his monograph, with its reproductions of Cotton’s very own brand of sugar plum fairies and gingerbread houses, is impeccably timed for the holiday season. It’s the perfect gift for any contemporary art (or sugar) addict, whether they’ve been naughty, nice, or, like most of us, a little bit of both.

*Cotton’s first monograph, published by Rizzoli, is available from the NYC boutique Partners & Spade with a limited edition lithograph for $700. The monograph alone is priced at $65.00.

TEXT BY Emilie Trice