By 1988, Cockrill had dissolved his collaborative partnership and begun a series of large paintings of pubescent girls. Looking for a zone between the erotic and the sentimental, Cockrill anticipated the sexually loaded figuration that would emerge in the early 1990s’ paintings of younger artists like Liza Yuskavage, Nicole Eisenmann and John Currin. In 1994, curator Barry Blinderman brought Cockrill’s “little girl paintings” (painted from 1988 to 1990) to the University Galleries at Illinois State University for an exhibition entitled “Discontents and Debutantes.” A firestorm of controversy erupted at the University and swirled in the local press and on campus for the duration of the show.
It wasn’t until Cockrill armed his little girls with rifles, knives and pistols and had them torment terrified circus clowns that viewers and critics began to come around to his work. He began his Baby Doll/Clown Killer series in 1995 and had solo shows of the series in New York, Philadelphia, Milan (Italy) and Los Angeles. In New Art Examiner (July-August 1997), critic Felicia Feaster wrote that the paintings “achieve a shockingly layered profusion of meaning. Absurd and tongue-in-cheek on the surface, the works are underneath, dark and psychologically loaded with scenes of humiliation and trauma.” Five years after he began the clown-killer series, Cockrill changed his work again. Borrowing from the magazines and Little Golden Books of his early childhood, Cockrill began weaving together coming-of-age narratives that included overtones of his own Catholic upbringing in suburban Northern Virginia. In Art in America (March 2005), Steven Vincent praised the artist for his “smart painterly skills and wicked nostalgia for the Camelot years.”
Recent paintings by Mike Cockrill have been inspired by American children’s illustrated stories from the ‘50s and ‘60s. “Illustrators such as Tenggren, Weisgard and Kolb all contributed to our collective memories of childhood,” he says. Anthony Haden-Guest, writing about Mike Cockrill for an upcoming book to be published by Kent Gallery, observes, “The pictures (sources) that turn Mike Cockrill on are neither plunder nor cultural markers. They are his ways and means of at once re-experiencing a seemingly enchanted childhood world and decoding it. They are time machines …”
Cockrill’s paintings closely detail the rich transition from the world of childhood fantasy to adult awareness in a manner that is both playfully innocent and sexually charged. Characterized by an interest in nostalgic figuration, Cockrill’s paintings balance the sacred and profane as well as issues of sex, politics and the suburban family.