Ain Cocke's lurid and flamboyantly "traditional" portraits of male World Wars I and II era soldiers recall Rococo artists such as Boucher and Fragonard as well as the Neue Sachlikeit painter Christian Schad. These two historical points of reference--pre-Revolution France and 1920s Weimar Germany--give context to Cocke's painfully pretty pictures. "These periods of history and art history interest me," says Cocke. "They were strange times for painting and life. A new time is coming and painting is transforming again as we get closer to the event." With intimations of radical change, Cocke addresses the current cognoscenti's suspicion of painting by pushing hard on the very buttons that irk it the most: the decorative, the figurative and a seemingly kitsch nostalgia. He creates a kind of Neue Rococo style for a world about to fall apart, again.
A central undercurrent running through this body of work is a personal meditation on male intimacy and its peculiar shifting definitions and its problems. Says Cocke: "The difficulties of male intimacy have always intrigued me. Since I was young, I have had difficulty understanding the now apparent, invented narrative of masculinity. For me, the act of making these works is an actual intimate moment between myself and the phantasms of the masculine iconic." These iconic "phantasms"--World War-era soldiers--relate to the theory that a shift occurred in the nature of masculinity around this time. Gender theorists and historians have posited that the first half of the 20th century was the end of a period where male intimacy was allowed without the burden of specific identities like "homosexual," which imposed restrictions on behavior between men as much as clarified and codified it.
Georges Bataille wrote that "an aura of death is what denotes passion," connecting the intimacy of lovers with its opposite: violence and the fear of departure. The subjects of Cocke's work, soldiers and men of war, are both archetypal in terms of their maleness and representative of the brutality, or the tyranny of love--"Violence is an expression of love," says the artist. These portraits are intimately close, yet historically displaced and out of reach. Cocke has taken an already idealized image--the original photograph of a subject, now transformed beyond recognition by age or death--and added exponentially to the intensity the subject's idealization through his depiction in paint.
A Conversation with Nicholas Weist
Ain Cocke is a young artist currently based in Bejing. His first New York solo show, simply titled New Paintings, opened at Goff + Rosenthal Gallery on March 6 and will be on view until April 11. His "traditional," Baroque-style portraits of WW I and II-era soldiers are evocative of a particular era of intimacy among men, that has since disintegrated under the increasing pressure of new types of male identities, such as homosexuality.
Nicholas Weist: You paint and draw from collected photographs. Do you think of yourself as someone who paints from life? Or perhaps from death?
Ain Cocke: I don't really think about my practice as "painting from photographs." I do have a collection of specific kinds of photographs that I hunt down, wherever the hunt is to be had, and interest in and acquisition of these images I do consider to be part of my art-making process. Although, I don't really think about these photographs as photographs, I think about them as images. This distinction of language is important to me: it allows me to interpret the image as if it were my own, as if I had seen or remembered it... So I don't paint from photographs per se--it's more of an interpretation, even in a physical and material sense, of collective experiences, and my memories and the visual record. This I feel is somewhat in opposition to just re-recording the dead object--the photograph (a mere stone)--into a different medium. I try to paint from slices culled from the collective narrative, the life that was and is. These collected images are the stimulus for the images I paint: they act as anchors for the paintings. They are a locus.
So to answer your question, I paint from life. I paint from life through the filter of death. I paint from the collective narrative that is the "life" we inherit from the dead.
NW: Your subjects demonstrate a peculiarly non-sexual kind of love for each other. What interests you about these relationships?
AC: One reason these relationships interest me is because they are a love that is centered around the anticipation or activity of violence. These relationships are love among men who exist in a hyper-masculine state. Also in some cases states of victory or domination, where virility oozes: hyper-sexual states. It seems to me that the normal definitions of masculinity (virility, muscles, odor, etc...) are too limited. Love and companionship are also part of masculine activity. As David Bowie said,"...The church of man love is such a holy place to be."
NW: The link between domination and sexual states is much discussed by writers and theorists like Bataille, Genet... Are there any writers that have been influential for you?
AC: I read Bataille in school: he seems like a decent enough chap. I always liked "The Story of the Eye," mostly because a friend is missing one and he would always talk about that work. I've looked at "The Transvestite Memoirs" by Abbe de Choisy--It's a funny little book about transvestism and sex with little girls that was actually written by a person in the court of Louis IV. This book talks loosely about some of the origins of Camp. Another important book for me is "The Sexual History of the World War" by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. He was developing a theory of a third sex and was interested in the study of sexual and erotic urges, at a time when the early labels of sexual identity were still being formed. I like Susan Sontag, and I also just picked up a new Mel Bochner book of writings and interviews. That guy is razor sharp: he said a few things to me in conversation at grad school that I still consider regularly. I also like Saussure and Derrida, although I must confess that he's a little thick to wade through. I must admit I'm a bit of a dilettante when it comes to reading. I'd rather see the movie.
NW: Could you share some thoughts about the linkage between love/romance and colonialism?
AC: I think love and romance are the major ingredient, besides acquiring physical resources of course, in colonialism. I mean in colonialism you have to carry on a romance with yourself (as a people) right? Now that colonialism has mostly disappeared, we have post-colonialism, which is just like secretly being in love with yourself. The structure that thought it was the "center" for most of history actually still thinks it's the center, secretly.
Romance and love is something that definitely needs to be inspired by the colonizing or invading force... Thus the mythmaking and romance of the soldier identity.
NW: You have an incredible gift for rendering, although your colors are a little brighter than our dull world... is it important to you that your work is physically realistic?
AC: Yes it is important to me that the work is realistic. Painting itself is a sign, and so is the manner in which it is painted. I aspire to a certain kind of realism that connects me with the right historical references. It is important that the paintings are realistic so that they confirm a real relationship with the viewer as well as locate the work in a certain time/place, but not necessarily real looking. I don't want the paintings to act as a window that a viewer is supposed to walk through and wander around in: I don't have anything for you inside the depiction of my world. The work is a collection of signs presented on the surface of the canvas, to be read, felt, or disregarded in the manner in which the signs make sense to you.
Color is beautiful and sensual, and it is another sign. How do you a 2-dimensional representation to life? Color is a good way. The paintings' life must be in the paint. The colors' hyper-reality cues our consciousness to its inability to distinguish what is real from what is fantasy. And in other cases it tells the consciousness what is actually to be seen as real.
I just spent three days in Vienna, which has the most amazing collection of historical paintings. I tried to see them all. What struck me about most of them was how dull they were in use of color. Even the paintings from the 20th century.
NW: What other artists do you look at?
AC: I like to look at Michael Borremans. Kurt Kauper of course. I also like to keep a dialogue going with artists like Justin Lieberman where the technique is quite different but there is much to be discussed.
NW: What inspired the florid borders you include in your drawings? And why do they differ from the staid ovals in your paintings?
AC: I actually think that they are the same, or rather they function in the same way. One is just more obviously decorative than the other.
The ornate borders that are in many of my drawings are ideas, or extrapolations of ideas, that I have pilfered from the history of portrait-making. I'm always looking for interesting solutions to the figure/ground relationship problem. These borders, or solutions (whatever they may be) are just visual cues, signs that tell the viewer how to look at the work. These devices connect the drawings to a location in art history. But most of all they are just pretty to look at.
As far as eliminating that decorative element in the boarders of the paintings, I just thought it was too much. The quiet sign says the same thing as the embellished sign. The effect is often that the embellishment within the oval is increased with just the simple line sign.
NW: Why only soldiers? What about them intrigues you?
AC: Well if you really want to know, I just stumbled on a really great way to keep playing with G.I. Joes.