Mike CockrillBack to Artists
Enduring issues in Mike Cockrill's work have developed over several decades and have been carried through several bodies of distinct work. Following classical training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, he moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1979. He first gained notoriety in the early 1980's with collaborator Judge Hughes. The bitingly satirical cartoon paintings of Cockrill/Judge Hughes were included in all the early Brooklyn "mega shows," including "the Monumental Show" 1981, The "All-Fools Show," 1982 and "Terminal New York" 1983.
Their early graphic novel, The White Papers, 1982, established the duo in the downtown scene. The wordless black and white cartoon book traced a ruthlessly sexual and brutally satirical lineage through the murders of JFK, Sharon Tate and John Lennon. One downtown critic wrote that The White Papers was "the weirdest most shocking publication ever printed." New Museum founder Marcia Tucker requested the book in slide format so she could include The White Papers in her lectures. And artist David Salle brought on a lawsuit with Cockrill/Judge Hughes when he "borrowed" and image from the book and reproduced it twice in his painting "What is the Reason For Your Visit to Germany," shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1984. The suit was settled out of court.
Cockrill/Judge Hughes had solo shows at Semaphore Gallery in Soho in 1985 and 1986. The gallery also represented Martin Wong, Robert Colescott, Mark Kostabi, Walter Robinson and Ellen Berkenblit, among others.
With each new exhibition Cockrill and his partner faced on onslaught of critical hostility. Writing in Art in America (November 1985?), Reagan Upshaw summarized the critical response; "They and their art have been called 'aggressively stupid,' arrogant and tasteless,' and 'symptoms of...social illness,' with 'shock effect their only talent,' by a variety of viewers." She added her own verdict. "These paintings are nauseating." (Art in America declined to run an image with the review.)
However, by 1988 Eleanor Heartney was giving the work a less reactive second look. In New Art Examiner, November 1988, she wrote, "Next to Cockrill and Judge Hughes Mad Magazine-style depiction of grandfather and daughter lustily fornication as parents indulgently look on, (Eric) Fischl's well-painted oedipal dramas suddenly seem extremely tame."
By 1988, Cockrill had dissolved his collaborative partnership and had begun a series of large paintings of pubescent girls. Looking for a zone between the erotic, and the sentimental, Cockrill anticipated the return to female figuration that would occur a few years later in the early 1990's paintings of younger artist like Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin and Catherine Howe.
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. The culture wars raged with students from the Social Studies department picketing the gallery, and the school's Academic Senate voting to keep the show up.
It wasn't until Mike Cockrill armed his little girls with rifles, knives and pistols and had them tormenting 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 held solo shows of the series in New York, Philadelphia, Milan, Italy and LA. 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 Mike Cockrill for his "smart painterly skills and wicked nostalgia for the Camelot years."
Recent paintings by Cockrill have been inspired by American children's illustrated stories from the 50's and 60's. Figures such as Tenggren, Weisgard, Kolb all contributed to our collective memories of childhood serving as markers of departure. The metaphors are reworked and re-explored from a contemporary vantage, arriving with surprising twists and interpretations. 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 balances the sacred and profane as well as issues of sex, politics, and the suburban family.