Will Cotton craves sweets. For an exhibit at the Mary Boone Gallery in Manhattan, the artist painted portraits of models wearing lollipop tiaras and landscapes with gingerbread houses buried in snowbanks of fluffy white icing. Last summer he became a pop-culture phenomenon after transforming the Candy Land board game into the setting for singer Katy Perry's hilariously over-the-top "California Gurls" music video. The scantily clad singer traipses through a dream world of Cotton's works, past gummy bears and across licorice tightropes, before ascending into cotton-candy clouds.
For his next series of paintings, Cotton has been exploring chocolate, a medium he's never worked with before. He became intrigued by the idea of transforming the often kitschy bûche de Noël, a traditional French Christmas dessert of sponge cake rolled into a cylinder, covered in icing and decorated to resemble a Yule log. Cotton's creative process usually begins in the kitchen, so to prepare his bûche, he has gathered a small group of collaborators at his studio on the Lower East Side, where he's installed an oven next to his easels. At his side is Dominique Ansel, the executive pastry chef at Manhattan's restaurant Daniel, who has prepared four bûches de Noël for the group to adorn with chocolate stars, almond bark, meringue mushrooms and deep-pink macarons. The amateur pâtissiers soon shed their self-consciousness as they wield tubes of butter cream that glue the decorations onto the cakes.
Meanwhile, Cotton starts another artwork, directing model Hannah Cohen, who is wearing a silver dress resembling a cupcake wrapper that he co-designed with Cynthia Rowley. He asks Cohen to pose near a towering sculpture of cakes, then carefully crowns her with a tall, conical bûche de Noëlinspired headpiece that he and Ansel have fashioned from icing and chocolate. Cotton will photograph her, make sketches from the images and then begin to paint (he often works from photographic images altered on a computer). Posing against a black background, the model suddenly evokes a goofy, high-calorie Medici princess.
Playfully blurring linesbetween a thoughtfulness about his place in art history, a child's pure happiness in sweets and an adult's sensual appetitesis very much a part of Cotton's process. In his large, realistically rendered canvases, nude models float blissfully in an ether of cotton candy that suggests the celestial space in which Tiepolo's cherubs frolicked. The subjects of Cotton's portraits have the regal solemnity of the aristocrats who sat for Sargent, Whistler or Bronzino. But their crowns and tiaras are more likely to be made from cupcakes, or from the glistening ribbon candy that initially sparked the collaborative friendship between Cotton and Ansel. Cotton usually creates the edible landscapes he paints himself, but after taking a class to learn how to make ribbon candy, he finally asked Ansel to help him manage the difficult challenge of hand-pulling the delicate but scaldingly hot ribbons. "It's like working with glass," says Cotton. "You need to develop calluses to withstand the high heat."
Raised in New York State's Hudson Valley and educated at Cooper Union and the New York Academy of Art in Manhattan, Cotton created his identity as an artist out of a desire to find the symbols that genuinely resonated with him (as opposed to the religious and mythological symbols that art has traditionally borrowed). He says, "I asked myself, What's my pantheon?"
After working with the familiar, instantly recognizable advertising images from his childhood in the late 1960s and early '70sthe Nestlé's Quik bunny, the Trix rabbit, Twinkie the KidCotton noticed how many of the characters were connected with sweets. Eventually, he recalled the Candy Land board game he used to play and his "insane" desire to physically enter that landscape of peppermint-cane forests. When he looked at the game for the first time in 20 years, "It almost seemed like a place I had actually been, a real environment I had memories of. Utopia.
"I was looking for a metaphor out of which I could build an entire landscape representative of desire and indulgence. It's not food so much as sweets that I find interesting. Their sole reason for existence is pleasure. I thought if I could make a landscape out of sweets, it would be representative of the complete immersion in pleasure."
When his early efforts struck him as too flat, too much like children's-book illustrations, Cotton resolved to figure out how to make these invented worlds seem "really believable." He drew inspiration from art history, from the luminous 19th-century Hudson River paintings of Thomas Cole and the visions of the American West by painter Albert Bierstadt. What appealed to him was that these landscapes were like narratives, demonstrating that "even without people, you can tell a whole story." And so Cotton began to portray imagined worlds in which it is possible for himand for usto navigate a path between Popsicle trees and inhabit gingerbread houses. "It's storytelling. These landscapes are unreal, sublime, beyond the possibility of human experience."
To help him visualize these confectionery scenes, Cotton often prepares maquettes to use as models. "I could build an entire landscape myself, fill it with whatever symbols I wanted to, and then paint a picture of it as if it were a real landscape." In some cases, the materials employed in these constructions are artificial, and therefore more durable; on the work table in his studio is an enormous wedding cake that he built mostly from Styrofoam. But some of the sweets he uses in his paintings and sculptures are not only real but edible (and delicious). "I started doing a lot of baking. I got cookbooks. I spent about a month baking a cake pretty much every day, and adding a new cake onto this pile of cakes that just grew until it was about six feet tall."
Over time, Cotton's enthusiasm for baking has spilled over from his work studio into his daily life. He even opened a pop-up bakery last year at New York's Partners & Spade gallery selling cakes, pies and tarts. "I find it a gratifying hobby. At the end of a painting daya day that's challenging and demanding just because anything is possiblebaking has limitations that are soothing. The best you can do is follow the recipe exactly. If it says two cups of flour, you'd better put in two cups of flour. That said, there's a lot of room for creativity."
That creativity, combined with Cotton's determination to make art that is simultaneously serious and accessible, has enabled him to take on projects like the "California Gurls" music video, which has gotten more than 50 million hits on YouTube. "What are the chances of that many people ever seeing an artist's work?" he says, shaking his head in amazement.
He's right, it's pretty astonishing. And yet it also makes a certain sense. Earlier, Cotton had mentioned the impossibility of ever knowing how anyone else will experience your work. "So I have to make the painting for me, about me, and hope it resonates with other people." And resonate it does, with fans from Katy Perry to former Guggenheim Museum director Lisa Dennison, who recently curated an exhibition at Sotheby's gallery in Manhattan based on Dante's Divine Comedy, a show to which Cotton is contributing a painting of a woman lolling in a cloud of cotton candy and half-melted ice cream.
Cotton snaps his final photos of the model in the headpiece for what will become a new body of work. He then joins his guests, who are snacking on dark chocolate stars, macarons and candied cherries left over from decorating the bûches de Noël. In making his resonant canvases, Cotton may have tapped into an essential but under-appreciated truth: that the craving to inhabit a landscape of sweets is as primal as any of the desires that, over centuries, have inspired people to make art.
Writer Francine Prose's forthcoming novel, My New American Life, will be published next spring.
Will Cotton's show at Los Angeles's Michael Kohn Gallery opens in January. kohngallery.com.
Will Cotton's Food Art: 3 Masterworks
1. Cotton Candy Hannah, 2009
Pink cotton candy clouds are the backdrop for many of Will Cotton's portraits. The model in this oil painting is wearing a cupcake tiara that Cotton created for workers at his NYC pop-up bakery.
2. Ribbon Candy Portrait, 2008
After taking a candy-making class, Cotton realized he'd need pastry chef Dominique Ansel to help him manipulate 170-degree sugar into a wig of ribbon-candy ringlets for this oil painting.
3. Delight, 2009
"Prior to creating this sculpture, I often made towers out of real cake and real frosting," says Cotton. "Then I found materials that feel just like frosting, but don't deteriorate."