The candy cornucopias that Will Cotton paints with an Old Masters' sensual skill evoke conflicting feelings of desire and frustration. The Massachusetts-born artist's sumptuous oil paintings reach back to the soft focus, soft-core tradition of 18th-century masters Jean Broc, Jean-Pierre Franque and Jean-Honore Fragonard. Like his predecessors, Cotton paints beautiful, creamy-skinned nudes amid luscious surroundings. However, instead of pastoral love scenes, Cotton sets his voluptuaries against mountains of sweets, inspiring a host of insatiable yearnings and corresponding feelings of self-reproach.
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For the three consecutive Sundays beginning on November 8, however, Cotton will offer his fans a relatively guilt-free opportunity to experience fantasies of confectionary indulgence by making his art come to life. Cotton will turn New York's Partners & Spade gallery into a Rococo paradise worthy of Marie Antoinette—or at least as Sofia Coppola envisioned her. On November 8, 15, and 22, the 44-year-old artist will fill the gallery with a magnificent array of cakes, macaroons, pies, tarts, and other treats he will cook himself for his lucky gallery guests, who will be able to purchase the sweets at normal bakery prices.
"The difference between visiting my bakery and any other is essentially curatorial,” Cotton says. “It's not just a random selection of sweets, it's a collection of smells and tastes that have been important to me in my work, and have informed a lot of the imagery." Furthering the fantasy, he will also flesh out the erotic element in his art by outfitting his beautiful helpers with handmade cupcake tiaras.
"It occurred to me that a lot of what happens in my studio has to do with the smells and tastes of baking and that those elements are absent when I show my paintings," Cotton explains. "I'm looking at this project as a way to fill in those missing pieces in a public setting. The sweets I'll be making at the bakery are all coming out of the work I've done in the studio, though they haven't all wound up in my paintings. Sometimes in searching for recipes for prop building, I'll come across something else that catches my attention and just follow the thread, try it out and see where it leads. That's the case with the pear frangipane tart, one of my favorites."
• Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignBeyond the sugar and dream girls, Cotton's art contains serious substance. His painting technique is timeless, but the content and its impact are centered on today as his images speak of unsatisfied yearnings, neglect and misdirected desires within cotemporary culture. A Cotton portrait has the feel of illustrations for the famous Depression-era ditty, “Big Rock Candy Mountain." Yet, while his images look like a hobo's fever dream born from sensual deprivation, Cotton paints in an era of plenty. And he paints for an era in which delights like candy can come in endless quantities but with sweetness poisoned by gluttony and guilt. Instead of portraying lovers in mid-tryst, he paints solitary fashion models, whose aloofness often reflects self-obsession, porn fixations, and masturbation.
Against that background, Cotton's decision to cook for his viewers undercuts the very isolation and alienation that his images represent. Cotton is well known within the New York art community as a warm and accessible man, and this bakery event only brings the artist and his audience closer. Recently, a few fellow artists have been staging high-profile performance installations involving food in which the artist is essentially feeding his or her viewers and treating them as guests. For example, last week former food writer and party planner-turned-artist Jennifer Rubell opened the fourth Performa Biennial by providing 500 attendees with a 2,000-pound hillock of honey-soaked ribs and mountains of other delicacies. As Cotton says, "It may be easier in these times to put an effort into something that has no commercial upside when there's less commerce being done anyway."
Although he is represented by the Mary Boone Gallery, Cotton selected a commercial space that was more accessible to a wider audience. "I decided that a real gallery setting would be the wrong place for this project. Partners & Spade is not a gallery. In fact it's hard to pin down exactly what it is, which is just the kind of venue I'm interested in. In a gallery there's an expectation of high prices and a somewhat elitist atmosphere."
Food fads and prejudices can be intricately linked to class and cultural stereotypes, yet Cotton explains, "I do get a lot of varied reactions but they don't seem to divide along class lines. People's love of sweets and guilty feelings about overindulgence are pretty universal. My personal tastes are across the board. I love Halloween for all the low-brow candy, but then I'll occasionally wind up at Daniel, where I know the pastry chef, and he'll make a 10-course dessert tasting that's so complex and exciting with all kinds of unexpected flavor combinations. I'm usually searching for items to paint that are familiar enough to trigger a response in the viewer.
It's part of building a believable fiction in the pictures, I'm looking for common points of reference." And, Cotton confides, "For me, making art is about telling a story and I've been feeling lately like there's more to be said that's not purely visual. Smells are so powerful and evocative, sometimes stronger than visual cues." From a purely visual perspective, Cotton's art is mouth-watering. By going further and actively stimulating taste and smell, Cotton's real-life bakery will surely summon the sincerest critical response of all—yum.
Ana Finel Honigman is a New York-born and Berlin-based art and fashion critic, curator and Ph.D. candidate at Oxford University.