Mike Cockrill "By Innocence Bound" at 31 GRAND | WBURG
Updated: Oct 17, 2018
When we were young, the world seemed completely open to us. It was filled with promise, and we were excited - if uncertain - about what would happen. In many ways, the process of becoming a human being is similar to that of developing an artistic sensibility. We begin as clean slates and slowly, through trial and error, aided by an interiority of uninformed impulses, develop a sensibility which begins to resemble a set of convictions, allowing us to proceed within our purview and ultimately beyond. For these processes to develop, a degree of projection is needed, and art provides just such an outlet. The paintings in Mike Cockrill’s solo exhibition, Then Again, narrate a period of youth during which a variety of anonymous characters – in this case, mainly young girls - experience life in all its wonderful complexity. The entire duration of life is neither available to us through these images, nor does Cockrill consider it useful nor revealing to narrate a life's full span. He focuses on the interval between two greatly dramatized yet nominally understood states: childhood and maturity. The word "innocence" describes a state of absence, a blissful ignorance waiting to be filled with ideas and experiences from which a suitable set of convictions can be formed. It denotes a lack of culpability in matters of adult moral agency, and yet it also presents us with a value which is constantly under review. It is hard to know what innocence means, except as a symbolic embodiment of everything we know unlearned from the start. Its opposites are well known to us: lust, evil, or knowledge. Yet the innocent present us with a paradox of unfathomable limits. Their openness is like a weapon, a standard with no clear message. They are closer to beasts than men. The innocents that Mike Cockrill portrays are for the most part children. In some cases they are quasi-adult children, or young women, or adult women transforming from knowing adults into pawns in dramas where adult agendas are instantly suspect. This is a complex exhibition, instantly adding to the variety of forms in Cockrill’s previous body of work, and, aided by a will toward multivalence and idiosyncrasy, successfully presenting characters emerging from stereotypes into full-blown personae. The most easily perceived works are four large canvases, 5 x 4 feet in size, depicting dramas in which a female persona, whether a mother, daughter, or beloved childhood companion, symbolizes an alteration in childlike consciousness - a dream of simple idealism, attraction turning into awe, or bittersweet love from afar. Readily informed pictorially by religious, mythological, and propagandistic sources, these transformations prove no less effective for Cockrill's use of a large range of visual agendas. The evidence of such influences proves how important they are from a societal level down to a personal one.
In the first of these large canvasses, Men with Arrows Plan Our Future (all works 2004), we are presented with a scene out of the mists of childhood, a happy accident that leads one from ignorance into lust: a young boy hangs around with his mother as she completes household chores such as laundry. When she kneels down to lift the basket, he is inadvertently given a full view of her womanhood, including her legs above the knees and her full breasts. Her eyes averted while at her task, she is both unconscious of his sudden and instinctually informed attentiveness while simultaneously becoming the vessel for his desire. The momentous quality of such a simple event is underscored by the depiction of a space rocket’s final section landing in the ocean, accompanied by a billowing parachute and identified with a large black arrow like the type appearing on NASA flight charts. Besides this image, there are also background images which include a living room couch and a large, ranch-style suburban home - stereotypically American - combining the aura of a traditional family with the generic style of mass-produced domesticity.
In another large canvas titled The Iliad, Cockrill depicts a young girl caught in the whirlwind of her own deeply repressed emotions. This painting does not contain a single dramatic event, but rather attempts to capture the emotional tenor of her world-view. The girl is spindly and fragile-looking, dressed in sensible shoes, knee high striped socks, a zipped white windbreaker, and thick black frame glasses. She stands in the center of the painting with an assortment of images surrounding her in the manner of a high-school scrapbook: two cute puppies; her younger brother drawing in a book; a little Dutch or Amish boy cranking a town water pump; military jets booming through the sky; an aircraft carrier moored in port somewhere far away. While her mother paints the blank background around the edge of her face with a whitewash, a mysterious male hand covers the bottom half of the picture with the same substance. The little girl stands on a large image of an aircraft carrier that is made to seem less realistic than the ones depicted in separate frames. It seems to be almost a chariot for her, to carry her through anxiety and fear into safety, or which functions as the presence of a father - a long lost warrior out to sea - who will return to complete her life as she can never do on her own.
A third large canvas, Ascension, presents a woman in the throes of an excessive emotional state, though one which expresses an opposite state of mind from the previous one described here. The woman in this picture is older, and has the Rubenesque body of someone who has born a few children. She is clad in a gossamer teddy, and surrounded on all sides by gaily singing boys and girls, a large, cheerful country home with a spacious front yard, as well as by a jet plane and the small background image of a woman packing a suitcase. Although all is depicted in straight lines and bright colors, we can only come to certain conclusions here. The painting represents an actual and symbolic celebration of the artist’s own mother: surrounded by her beautiful and adoring progeny, she is portrayed not only as the successful proprietress of her household, but also as a woman both sensual and idealistic who dreams of both further richesse and future travel - an independent departure from her current circumstance into one of as yet unreckoned possibility. Again, there is no father or husband figure present.
The Madonna of the Roses depicts a scene of mundane gaiety which is quickly transformed - by the excising of a single object - from one of camaraderie and youthful joy on the edge of desire, into one of spiritual awe. A young girl is skipping rope, holding in one hand a flower which perhaps the young boy at her side has just given her. In the midst of a single leap her ropes disappear and she is made to levitate: the frills on her two-piece jumpsuit fly up in the breeze while her gaze lowers down to the viewer, giving her a serenity and earnestness beyond her years. The young boy, dressed fancily for church with a white shirt and large bow at his neck, is caught in mid-sentence, either in the throes of religious ecstasy or love for his suddenly blessed companion.
A series of single portraits fills out the show, some on canvas in oil and others on paper in watercolor. Each provides an allegory or narrative which expands our ability to see in women and children what Cockrill sees. In The Good Child, a young girl prays before bedtime, her hands folded before her in the customary gesture. But instead of a solemn face dedicated to moral purpose, we see a girl whose love of God and trust in the truth of ritual brings her immediate joy - which Cockrill has dramatized by painting clown lips over the girl’s own. White and large with a slight outline of black, such lips make the girl into a primal force for unabashed glee, as well as a devout worshipper. Not My Rainbow, Dog Day Afternoon, Virgin in Spring, and The Rainy Day - each portrays a young girl or woman who is given to the contemplation of solitude. Some of these maidens seem to be taken from the images of melancholy characters that illustrate front covers of ten-cent paperbacks. Others seem lifted directly from literature as varied as Little Red Riding Hood, Heidi of the Hills, Nabokov’s Lolita or from the paintings of Balthus. Despite their overly generalized imagery, and sampling from multiple sources, these portraits lose nothing in the way of emotional message or urgency, and serve to reinforce our attentiveness to the culturally-informed contexts of Cockrill's idiosyncratic perceptions on storytelling, emotional narrative, and idealization of women. I
In viewing these paintings, we look back upon a dim memory of a time when we were just beginning to actively form our sense of self. Moments of contemplation and accidental scenarios of loaded significance - even generalized periods spent under the sign of a particular impression or event - all contributed significantly to how we developed in our later years. It’s clear to see that Mike Cockrill has a special love for women, and whether this originates from his own role as a father or the golden memories of his distant youth, it is the degree of parable in these images that charms and seduces us. Woman is the divine Other - a force for emotional and spiritual change. In our earliest years we are naturally dependent upon a mother figure. As we mature, it is to a mother or sister that we are drawn to make the first observations of newfound sexuality – as either a mirror or vessel for desirous projection. The resulting start of a new set of moral values also represents the loss of a previous, if unfulfilled, set of childlike values, in which the character of a family member may easily take on a degree of mythical significance. Each of these personae, individually or as a complementary set, represents an equal and opposite force to our own nature, which is then defined only by the choices we make and our evaluation of qualifying the general state of affairs surrounding and coloring such judgments. As Oscar Wilde once said, "the story of your life is not your life…it’s your story". Mike Cockrill reminds us of the importance of knowing the difference.