Mike Cockrill is recognized as “one of the most interesting representatives of the contemporary American pictorial wave” (Savorelli, Contemporary Magazine, Issue 55). He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 70s where he was trained in classical painting technique. He moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1979 and soon adopted a cartoonish style to break free of his previous academic approach. His satirical cartoon book, “The White Papers” 1982, a psychodrama of American sex, violence and assassination created in collaboration with Judge Hughes became an underground classic in New York. In the 80s Cockrill/Judge Hughes exhibited large cartoon paintings in the East Village, and at Semaphore Gallery in Soho, which featured the assassination of JFK as well as the incestuous undercurrents in the American family.
Cockrill resists boxing himself into one style and believes that artists who are unwilling to try something different become stuck. “I saw Neil Young in concert and he was singing his new concept album ‘Greendale’. People in the front rows were yelling for him to sing his old songs. Neil replied ‘I’ll get around to singing them later; the thing is if I didn’t make new music I would die’.”
Cockrill is always trying something new with his art and taking it in new directions. “ When I changed radically in the early 80s those who knew me personally were like, ‘I can’t even believe you made this book [The White Papers]. People have had to adjust to my new work every decade,” said Cockrill. “I never feel that the whole story of who I am and what I’m thinking is embodied in any particular artwork. There’s a lot left unsaid. When I was doing the cartoon paintings the content was so strong critics never mentioned the formal component, like the drawing, color and paint.” said Cockrill.
“It’s about the paint.” In the late 1980s Cockrill ended his collaboration with Judge Hughes and switched to large acrylic paintings of little girls in pink dresses or cheerleader outfits. Viewers of his new direction obsessed over his pubescent subject matter. “It’s not about the little girls, that’s just the device, it’s really about the way I put the paint down,” maintains Cockrill. “To me it was just pink brushstrokes with black stripes on the cheerleader dress and paint dripping down.” The argument goes back and forth between Cockrill and others asking then why the little girls, why not just black and white stripes? “I think the answer lies in certain post-modernism. I felt like the abstract painting had become exhausted by the time I went to art school. By embracing what’s called ‘bad art’ or stupid subject matter like Kennedy’s head being blown up, it was a way for me to liberate art, and myself, from a formalist dead end.”
Cockrill has had his fair share of confrontations regarding some of his pieces. “I’m not so concerned with people who are not in the art world because they could say that Picasso is a lousy drawer.” What bothers him more is when he’s labeled as the guy who paints little girls or a pedophile by a major art world curator. “If they think they have me figured out, then I’m going to keep them guessing, “ says Cockrill about one of his motivations to overhaul his approach to art making.
In June, Cockrill abruptly dropped his narrative story telling and took his art in a new direction. “I decided to reinvent or break down my work and restructure it. I think I was having a sort of mid-life crisis as an artist because I felt like I had hit a wall and I couldn’t continue to make the same kind of paintings,” said Cockrill. He painted a simplified 60s flip hairdo on a woman and gave her a fragmented cubist face. While reinventing his approach with paint Cockrill still retains his female content but with more ambiguous meanings and intentions. “I think that’s what video maker James Kalm was wondering when he came to my studio. He said I was known as a trickster. Where’s the subversion? Why the cubist grid? It’s a totally philosophic shift. I feel that these things I thought were exhausted could be gone back into, looked at and broken down.”
‘Modern Breakdown’ is about an artist dealing with an aesthetic crisis. “I think a lot of painters, and I’m approaching 60, make a huge change in their 20s and coast along until they start looking at the 60 year old thing. They think fuck it I’ve played your game long enough and I don’t need to do that anymore. There’s a late clarity and I think maybe I’m getting to that. I wasn’t sure at first that I liked what I was doing. I needed a push then you [Casey] came to my studio and said the ones without the faces are pretty good. Make more of those!”