Will Cotton’s world is filled with cotton candy, ice cream, peppermint sticks, chocolates and macaroons. His treacle paintings simultaneously evoke heaven, Candy Land—that beloved childhood board game—and a Katy Perry video. And his candy landscapes are populated by beautiful women who are part pin-up, part Renaissance goddess.
Now, Cotton will bring that world to life. For the first time, the painter will debut a performance piece as part of the Performa Festival in New York on November 18. It’s sure to put The Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” to shame. In the first part of the performance, Cockaigne (named after the mythical land of plenty), a burlesque dancer, will perform a “Whipped Cream Fan Dance,” while whipped-creamed scented perfume that Cotton designed will be piped through the air. In the second act, a trio of ballet dancers from the New York City Ballet will appear in a vignette dedicated to cotton candy. Cotton hopes the performance, which will be staged only once, will explore the material essence of candy. “What you’ll think of this whipped-cream fan dance is not what a sexy girl that is, but what a sexy material that is,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Whipped cream is just so sensual. If that’s the thought I left viewers with, I’d be very happy about that.”
Cotton, who releases a new monograph Will Cotton: Paintings & Works on Paper, this week, has long explored concepts of desire and fantasy through his candy paintings. His figurative works feature women stretched suggestively across cotton-candy clouds, or dripping in melted ice cream. Cotton’s works are sexually charged—but suggest sex without naming it. “It’s a kind of desire that’s not goal-oriented,” he tells Toby Kemps in a conversation published in the book. “There’s an excitement, but we don’t know what it’s for. I find that a thrilling thing to think about. I lose interest in a thing once it’s named. Once you start talking about adult sexuality, it has as name, a reason for being, and specific parameters. I like things that have no parameters.”
For this moving piece of candy theater, Cotton was inspired by his collaboration with pop star Katy Perry—whom he painted for her Teenage Dream album cover last year. The artist was brought on to help with her video “California Gurls,” which featured Perry meandering through a world that resembled one of Cotton’s paintings—filled with cotton-candy clouds and candy-cane forests.
With the exception of Perry, Cotton doesn’t like to paint celebrities. Often, he says, a star’s iconography can loom larger than his own—and a well-known likeness can overwhelm a painting. Katy Perry was an exception because, like his work, “she’s very over-the-top, she’s very sugary, and saccharine.” He says the only celebrity he’d consider painting now is Dita Von Teese.
While his work references everyone from Tiepolo and Veronese to mid-century pin-up artists like Gil Elvgren, Cotton’s candy habitats are all his own. He believes that art should serve as a communicator—and that candy is a universal language everyone can understand.
But despite the fantasy and desire the candy worlds invite, Cotton insists that he is a painter of reality. As a master baker, Cotton builds food maquettes in his studio and paints from those, rather than indulging in imagination. And he emphasizes the importance of imperfection—even in candy land. Chocolate melts, cotton candy disintegrates, graham-cracker walls separate, and gingerbread roofs eventually cave in. Sometimes it’s hard to find, but dystopia bubbles beneath the surface in all of this work. This, he says, comes from a personal fascination with failed Utopian communities, such as Oneida, and the abandoned hotels he saw in the Catskills as a kid. To that end, he says he’s a fan of Guillermo Del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth)—and has recently been reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
“I want this to be believable fiction,” he says. “It’s an important axiom of art-making, to tell the truth. The implied darkness makes it feel complete.”