Mike Cockrill’s pretty clown killers
The name of Mike Cockrill’s painting series says it all: “Baby Doll/Clown Killer.” It encapsulates the cuteness and innocence of a young girl’s toy, the danger and violence of a murderer and the silliness and sadness of a clown into one small package.
Cockrill, a New York City-based artist, will exhibit three paintings from this series at Converge Gallery, 140 W. Fourth St., beginning with an opening reception and artist talk today at 6 p.m.
The paintings depict young girls smiling as they threaten or harm clowns by aiming guns and arrows at them – or by hanging them, an act only revealed to us through the reflection of a boy sheriff’s glasses.
The artist, who has painted many sexually explicit paintings, says that these pieces are about something more.
“My work isn’t always about sexuality,” he said. “The clown paintings are about power. Even when I use sexuality, it’s not about sex. It’s about power relationships.”
The relationships between the girls in the paintings and the audience changed once Cockrill armed the figures. A clip from a Philadelphia City Paper review in 1997 explains:
His previous paintings of young girls, shown staring straight ahead (without guns or clowns), drew heavy criticism from feminists: 400 people boycotted his 1994 solo show at Illinois State University, claiming his paintings incite child abuse. One critic contended that ‘Baby Doll/Clown Killer’ is his reaction to the feminist opposition.
“As soon as I put guns in [the girls’] hands, no one was upset,” quips Cockrill.
Cockrill said that giving the girls weapons changes the way we read the images and gives us conflicted feelings.
“When it comes to the girls with the guns, I’ve turned the power relationship on its head,” he said. “The girls have the power – they have the guns – almost to a fault. The clown, which is the Other, is someone we don’t mind being gunned down. We sympathize with the killer, which is kind of rare. Usually, we sympathize with the victim. I wanted to make paintings that make us sympathize with the killer – for no reason. You’re like, ‘What did the clowns do wrong?’ But I think it’s a cultural critique.”
Cockrill’s painting method evolved from wanting to challenge the limits of high art. Since the early ’80s, he’s used styles that are not typically accepted by the art world.
“I think when you paint in a storybook style, it’s not something that the art establishment is comfortable with,” he said. “That’s subversive in itself – painting figuration, painting in a storybook style, painting clowns. Take all those things you’re not supposed to do as a serious artists and put them in the paintings. So, then the question is: Is this legitimate art? What do you have to do to make it legitimate art?”
Cockrill has never really fit into any art scene, even when he was a part of the East Village art crowd (in Manhattan) in the early ’80s, his art stuck out.
“If you read what was written about me in the 1980s I didn’t get many positive reviews,” he said. “At that time, I was painting cartoon images of the Kennedy assassination and satirical tableaus of incest in the American middle class home. The critical establishment was not amused.”
The first time he received good feedback was after his “smartly dressed girls started killing all the clowns in the ’90s.”
“The problem was my art was either too cartoony, too sexually explicit or too politically incorrect for the sensibilities at that time,” he said. “A sensibility that was informed by 1970s, anti-porn feminism. Merely painting a female nude was viewed as ‘objectifying women.’ “
None of Cockrill’s artworks in the current show, “Uprising,” which is a group show, are sexually explicit.
The artist wanted to show his work in Williamsport because he likes to shake things up.
“I like showing my art in far-flung areas,” he said. “I like being involved with younger artists. It’s all a part of my wanting to change things. I left Chelsea once before and went and showed in Williamsburg. It was a younger gallery with younger artists. There’s so much energy that you get from younger artists.”
He said that it’s a similar situation with Converge Gallery.
“It’s the same with Casey [Gleghorn, co-owner of the gallery] as a young dealer,” he said. “He’s got energy and enthusiasm and appreciation. I get to be sort of a mentor and I get back this wonderful energy. I don’t subscribe to the idea that I’m only supposed to show in blue chip galleries. I don’t care about these restrictions. I’m not ready to die. I want to keep being out there.”