Much like Cabanel’s large paintings of Venus or Boucher’s lascivious and indolent bodies, Will Cotton’s extremely precise and meticulously realistic style, depicts a dreamlike world where women mingle with confectionery landscapes. His utopias reveal parallel worlds where underlying desires are forever unquenched, thereby questionning notion of pleasure.
In keeping with this permanent celebration of a fantasy world, this New York painter unveils an unexpected exhibition at the Templon gallery in Brussels: “The Taming of the Cowboy”, which explores and goes beyond the simplistic binary gender models.
By Fanny Revault
How did your wish to paint come about?
When I was very young I wanted to have art on my bedroom walls. Of course I couldn’t buy anything so I got some watercolors and started painting.
You went from working outdoors to painting in the studio. Did this change the way you work? Or conversely, did you start working in the studio after changing your technique?
When I was an art student in the 1980s I did a good amount of outdoor painting. Over time, I found that I needed total control over the imagery so I began making my own miniature landscapes in the studio. There, I could build all the symbolic content from scratch.
Your realistic style enables you to render surprising textured effects and details which are close to photography. What motivates you to paint with such precision?
I found that to fully convey the narrative I had in mind, I needed to render the various objects in the painting as realistically as possible. I want the viewer to feel that what they are seeing is a real place. The hair, the skin, the candy, the cake, it all had to have its own feel.
I want the viewer to feel that what they are seeing is a real place.
Dreams and confectionery are both prominent themes in your work. Where does this attraction for this universe come from? Memories from your childhood?
Back in the 1990s, when I began working with the utopian candy landscape imagery, I was in a very hedonistic period of my life. It was all drinking and drugs and pleasure-seeking. I decided to use the candyland metaphor to describe the things I was experiencing in a way that seemed universal to me. Sweets are an indulgence that we have all experienced, and like drugs, they exist only for pleasure.
Within your utopian world, we are able to perceive beauty, softness, pleasure. How do you question the notion of desire? Is the desire imaginary or fulfilled?
As Lacan pointed out, there can be no desire without lack. So the dream of a place where all desires are always fulfilled would cancel itself out. I’m interested in describing insatiability, that feeling of always wanting more, so actual fulfillment is never actually achieved. It’s a state of constant longing.
As Lacan pointed out, there can be no desire without lack. So the dream of a place where all desires are always fulfilled would cancel itself out.
In the “Taming of the Cowboy” exhibition, you combine the figure of the cowboy – a symbol of freedom and masculinity – with a sweet, innocent pink unicorn’s fantasy world. What did you wish to suggest with this paradoxical encounter? A desegregation of that genre?
The title of the show refers to the struggle between the hyper-masculine and the ultra feminine in all its complexity. Each one appears dangerous to the other, as if their status could be threatened by close proximity alone. Some of the paintings accentuate this animosity, while others show the potential of understanding and mutual acceptance. It’s about the cowboy coming to terms with his feminine side.
The title of the show refers to the struggle between the hyper-masculine and the ultra feminine in all its complexity.
Does this series celebrate wealth and opulence of a mythical America in a way? If so, why?
I like to deal in mythology because it feels like the perfect state of things, unburdened by the complex problems, inconsistencies, and contradictions of real life. It’s a proposal, and as such, it’s free to celebrate things that can’t really exist.
What is a masterpiece according to you?
Every now and then I come across a work of art that continues to unfold and reveal itself over time. This is the best and most rare kind of art.
What are your dreams now?
I dream of being able to gather with friends in close proximity without fear of infection.