Will Cotton is a master of fantasy. He deals in worlds we only dream of—or at least faintly remember from a childhood game of Candy Land.
His paintings are literally other-worldly: giant expanses of Cotton Candy clouds emanating seductive nudes, treacle gingerbread houses dripping with sweets; striking, almost-Renaissance portraits of individuals topped with candy headpieces. In 2011, Cotton painted Katy Perry on a candy cloud—a piece that later became the singer’s album cover—and also designed the sets of her famous Candy Land-inspired “California Gurls” music video.
Now, he releases another body of work: a set of striking prints at PACE Prints in New York, many of which are the product of a commission from New York magazine earlier this year. The subject is the dough-eyed actress Elle Fanning dressed in current fashions, all rendered with a highly imaginative (and subversive) Cotton twist. There’s Elle piping frosting onto a Dolce & Gabbana cage dress, an elaborate headpiece constructed out of cupcake foils, and a Dior dress wrapped in a giant candy wrapper.
The New York series served as the inspiration for Cotton’s latest round of prints, which depict Fanning in similar scenarios. In one work, she experiments with candy earrings; in another, Dessert Skirt, a Thom Browne dress with a flared hem is re-imagined as a dessert tray, dripping with petit fours.
For Cotton, the series represents a headfirst dive into the realm of fashion, as each work required him to recreate or build over designer pieces. “I like to set up my working method in the studio such that I have posed a problem, or asked a question,” Cotton tells The Daily Beast. Referring to his fantastical landscapes, he continues: “In this case, it was, ‘What do you wear in this place?’ I had grown a little tired of always painting nudes, because honestly, I had been unwilling to answer that question. I knew you wouldn’t be wearing jeans and t-shirts.” So Cotton took designer pieces, and made them his own: an Alexander McQueen face cage was rendered in an acrylic-based paint engineered to look like frosting. The reinterpretation of recognizable fashion lends the clothes a playful edge—and, as Cotton puts it, gave him a great education in fashion design.
When I interviewed Cotton in 2011 in advance of the Katy Perry-themed show at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, he told me that he actually didn’t like to paint celebrities because their individual iconography tended to loom larger than his own visual language. You look at one of Cotton’s paintings of Katy Perry, for example, and you know that it’s a painting of Perry first—and a Will Cotton painting second. It’s ironic, then, that Cotton’s new focus is Fanning, now a recognizable face in her own right.
“You might have noticed that I didn’t actually mention her name in conjunction with any of the titles,” he says. “My hope is that there are these stages of removal because I’m dressing her up, photographing her, and making prints off those photographs—I don’t feel like it’s really about her. There haven’t been a lot of people saying, “Oh my God, is that Elle Fanning?” based on just looking at the prints. I’m thinking of her more as just the right person for the picture.”
Next, Cotton is collaborating with the famed French Macaroon house Laudrée, for which he has customized a specific flavor of macaroon and designed a matching box. The flavor? Ginger whipped cream. “That’s a flavor I’ve been excited about myself,” he says. “It’s something I’ve never been able to do before.”
But, despite Cotton’s prominence in both the art and pastry worlds, he surprisingly has never tried the elusive Cronut. “Oh my god, it’s making me so crazy because Dominique Ansel is a friend of mine, and we’ve done projects together before,” Cotton laughs. “I even designed one of the pastries he’s got on display there right now. And I still cannot get a Cronut. I said, “Dominique, what’s up man, why can’t I get a Cronut?” And he said: “You’ll have to get here very early in the morning.”