First published in The Collective, February 2016.
Will Cotton owes a debt to the gods of real estate. When the New York artist, whose lush oil paintings conjure cotton-candy wonderlands that feel like long-forgotten figments of our wildest childhood fantasies, moved into a loft equipped with an oven, he never could have guessed that his sweet tooth would lead the way towards a full-blown creative calling. “It was the mid-nineties and I had started painting these images that had more and more to do with sweets because I was looking for good metaphors for desire, consumption and insatiability,” grins Will, speaking from his studio in Manhattan’s Tribeca, during a brief painting break. “I started baking serendipitously because I’d moved into a new place and it was the first time I’d had an oven in a while. I started baking these cakes and then remembered that there was a game called Candyland that I’d played as a kid where everything was made out of confectionery. I started to research this kind of imaginary paradise and found references to this from very early on in human history. And then I realised that it was a really great way for me to get at broader ideas.”
Even if you’ve never heard Will’s name, chances are that his ideas have left an indelible mark on your consciousness; much like the feather-light macaron you once ate in Paris or the deep, persistent craving for your mother’s cake. In the last two decades, Will’s body of work, which features everything from nudes submerged in a lake made from ice-cream and landscapes dripping with molten chocolate to Katy Perry reclining on a candy-floss cloud has coined a sugary vocabulary that’s permeated the world of fashion, music and art. His exquisite canvases – which he makes by concocting edible creations from scratch in his kitchen before painting them in photorealist detail – make him a rare bird in an art world that worships edginess over beauty. This same devotion to pleasure has made him a star.
“I’ve always been accustomed to painting things that people didn’t necessarily find relevant,” says Will, who attended fabled art school Cooper Union and knew he wanted to be a painter when he sold a watercolour to a grandmother’s friend at age 12. “When I went to art school, the dominant style was really grounded in 1970s conceptual art, which had nothing to do with the sorts of stuff that I was really interested in. I looked at painting as a narrative, a chance to tell a story but one that’s open to interpretation – like good fiction writing.”
Although Will, who graduated in the late eighties, spent his early years painting sixties advertising icons such as the Pilsbury Doughboy and the Nesquik Bunny, it was building his first “maquette” – in this case, a six-foot tower of cake crowned with a gingerbread house – that allowed him to explore desire and indulgence by painting landscapes made from sweets. In 1996, his first solo show at the now-defunct Silverstein gallery in Chelsea, depicted a world shaped by lollipop forests and root beer waterfalls and combined candy shop innocence with the shadows of a Grimm fairytale. He joined prominent Fifth Avenue gallery Mary Boone a few years later.
“I had done some landscape paintings before but when I worked out how to build a maquette, it meant that I could control every aspect of symbolism and paint an object as if it was a real thing,” recalls Will, who’s since shown everywhere from the Roncini Gallery in London to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC and who’s preparing for an upcoming exhibition at the Orlando Museum that delves into the props and process behind his work. “I’ve really come to believe that making a good painting means telling the truth about something. I know it’s an oxymoron because my works are such fictions but to me the truth about desire and overindulgence is both wonderful and terrible. I first started making these paintings at a time in my life when I was really experimenting with boundaries, going to clubs all night and taking full advantage of the hedonistic possibility of New York City in the nineties. I felt like I knew both sides of that pleasure coin. It’s about accepting the totality of what it could mean to be in the place you’ve always dreamed of. If you try to shape a perfect world, if it’s not in human nature, it just won’t work.”
This obsession with manufactured illusion extends to Will’s side projects. In 2009, the artist introduced fans to the heady aromas that inspire his paintings via a pop-up bakery peddling sherbet-coloured baked goods. In 2013, he adorned the actress Elle Fanning with an elaborate headdress made from icing in a now-famous spread for New York magazine. And in 2010, he received an email from Katy Perry, the real-world version of the pin-up girls that rule his paintings. He went on to paint Cupcake Katy, a portrait that was recently gifted to the National Portrait Gallery and helped conceive the Technicolour wonderland that’s the backdrop to her hit California Gurls.
“Katy was coming over to my studio to pose for the painting she used on the cover for her album Teenage Dream but I suddenly received a call from her music video director who said ‘We’re looking at reproductions of your paintings and trying to figure out how to make the clip look like this,” laughs Will, who’s also painted Princess Marie-Chantel of Greece and the fashion designer Tom Ford. “It felt very important to me because I had been thinking about pop culture for decades and this was a way to contribute to the source and have a dialogue with someone I’ve thought about for so long. There’s no way that the number of people who see that music video or her album cover will see my paintings. It’s such a broad audience.”
Will, whose paintings reflect the obsession with capturing materials that’s a legacy of the Dutch Old Masters, might enjoy a reach that most artists could only dream of but it’s one that stems from a lifelong commitment to his craft.
“I graduated from art school in 87 and the first decade of my career was so hard because New York is such an expensive city to survive in,” he recalls. “I spent the first ten years trying to make money by decorating windows and painting walls because you can’t always count on finding a gallery. It’s always about trying to carve out the space to make your work. I think the best thing I ever did was to learn to live on almost nothing because as soon as you have bills to pay, there’s this temptation to find a good job and work in another profession. I survived by renting a studio and subletting the space and never eating at fancy restaurants like New Yorkers expect to do.”
He pauses, his smile audible over the phone line. “My allegiance has always been to be in the studio, painting, and to guard that time jealously. I feel like I learned something today when I was making a painting because it’s such a rich and complicated medium. And this is after 30 years of doing it.”