Art & Celebrity: Featuring Will Cotton, Francesco Vezzoli, & Richard Phillips

The version of California in pop singer Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” music video looks a lot like the board game Candy Land. As in the Milton Bradley original, Perry navigates a sugary path strewn with obstacles: a bridge made from a single Twizzler (she prudently removes her stilettos to cross it), candy canes that metamorphose into snakes, an army of gummy bears that take orders from Snoop Dogg. Eventually, Perry arrives at a capital city of sorts—Los Angeles, if it were constructed from upturned Mister Softee cones—and vanquishes Snoop and his treacly thugs using a bra that shoots whipped cream, like a flamethrower, from her aerosol-hardened nipples. “California girls,” she sings, “So hot we’ll melt your Popsicle.”

“Candyfornia” was created by Will Cotton, a painter whose studio sits on a block of New York’s Chinatown lined with wholesale kitchen supply stores, and who proposed collaborating with Perry after she emailed him about purchasing a painting. A slight man in his 40s with sandy blond hair, Cotton has made a career of translating confection into art. After the early 1990s, when he focused most of his energies on paintings of advertising icons like the Nestlé Quik Bunny, Twinkie the Kid, and the Pillsbury Doughboy, Cotton switched to landscapes rendered in profusions of pastel sweets. Odalisque nudes were introduced as subjects. The paintings’ nexus of desire—melting Breyers or the models’ own creamy skin—is sweetly muddled.

For “California Gurls,” Cotton constructed, using real candy, a small-scale version of the board game Perry would wander through on greenscreen. He also painted a large portrait of Perry lying on a cloud of pink cotton candy, a pouf of air-spun sugar covering her exposed derrière. Perry decided to use the image as the cover art for her second studio album, Teenage Dream. “She’s just someone who fits stylistically into this world,” Cotton says of his sugarscapes when I visit his studio one evening in January. “I started playing this game, asking myself who would be here if there were people in this place. Katy Perry would be here, that’s who.” Like One of the Boys, Perry’s debut full-length album, Teenage Dream went platinum, and in the process introduced Cotton to an entirely new audience.

With her Hollywood-approved curves, Perry does fit easily into Cotton’s body of work, even if she is the first household name with whom he’s partnered. “It’s a kind of iconography,” he says. “Even if we don’t use the term ‘Venus,’ to me it’s as archetypal an image as that.” But if Perry is a latter-day Fragonard goddess, she’s also, with nearly five-and-a-half million followers on Twitter, a celebrity version of the Trix cereal bunny—as much brand as bombshell. “Literally,” says Cotton, adjusting himself in his chair so that one leg is tucked under him, “She spent an entire hour applying fake eyelashes!” image Untitled a drawing of Katy Perry by Will Cotton, 2010, oil on paper, 22 x 24” Courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery

Will Cotton is hardly the only contemporary fine artist interested in working with celebrities—or the idea of celebrity. George Condo recently collaborated with rapper Kanye West to produce five paintings for the latter’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album cover. (While clearly an expression of Condo’s virtuoso grotesquerie, the art, we know from a January New Yorker profile of Condo, was also explicitly designed to be banned.) Lisa Yuskavage’s eerie-erotic nudes are a favorite of Bette Porter, a character played by Jennifer Beals on Showtime’s The L Word; Kehinde Wiley pictured Biggie Smalls and Michael Jackson in naturalistic, Old Master oils; Elizabeth Peyton contrived a career out of her jewel-like portraits of famous musician friends. “I’ve noticed an interest in developing a genuine dialogue with those things that are supposed to be considered off-limits,” says Cotton of consumer-celebrity mass culture. “There’s been a sentiment for a long time that since we are fine artists, we have to not dirty ourselves by dipping into that world in any way. I’m really interested in that.”

Andy Warhol would seem to be the inevitable point of comparison for anyone interested in making art about celebrities, but rather than align themselves in a genealogy sprouting from the paterfamilias of pop, artists like Cotton—with his allusions to goddess worship and 18th-century European portraiture—are reaching back through the annals of art history to pose the question: How has the idea of celebrity changed since the days of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley (since Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley), if it’s changed at all?

“The idea was to create a pagan church,” says 40-year-old multimedia artist Francesco Vezzoli over the phone earlier this year. It’s nearing midnight in Milan, the northern Italian city where the artist, who was born in nearby Brescia, currently lives and works. Despite the hour, Vezzoli, who’s been referred to variously in publications as a “rapscallion,” a “provocateur,” and a “whore,” betrays no signs of sleepiness in his voice. In just a few weeks, his first New York solo show, “Sacrilegio,” will open at the Gagosian Gallery’s West 21st Street location. Vezzoli plans to transform the eminent art space into a Renaissance chapel and install large-scale reinterpretations of 15th and 16th-century Madonna-and-Child paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli. (That Larry Gagosian is modern-day New York’s answer to Lorenzo de’ Medici is surely not lost on Vezzoli.) Where the original works feature the beatific Virgin, however, Vezzoli’s laser prints have swapped out Mary for Linda Evangelista, Stephanie Seymour, and Claudia Schiffer. Large, lozenge-shaped tears rendered in Vezzoli’s signature needlework fall from the supermodels’ eyes.

“I’ve been celebrity obsessed for so long that I’m now bored of it,” says Vezzoli. “But it’s still a comfort zone for me. I’d like to be the professor of the topic, the Olafur Eliasson of sequins.” To date, Vezzoli has created (among other works): a trailer for a non-existent remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula starring Helen Mirren, Courtney Love, and himself; a one-night-only restaging of Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think You Are) starring Cate Blanchett; and, most famously, an ad campaign for a fictitious perfume called Greed directed by Roman Polanski and starring Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams. “It’s fascinating to see the world getting fascinated with the embodiment of their dreams or their fantasies. I’m not a fan. I’m not a desperate Lady Gaga person,” says Vezzoli, who has collaborated with Mother Monster in the past. “I’m obsessed with the obsession that people have for her.” image Silvana Mangano as Mary Magdalene by Francesco Vezzoli, 1999-2009, laserprint on canvas, metal needles, 15 1/2 x 11 1/2” Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery Photo by Robert McKeever

Vezzoli has a sense of humor, but he deploys it as a bait-and-switch tactic meant to draw attention to the void at the center of his works, the absence of the products—the movie, the perfume—themselves. Greed won’t ever be available for purchase at Neiman Marcus beauty counters (it’s for us to wonder what bouquet a Portman/Williams catfight produces), and in this way, Vezzoli perverts the timeworn relationship between celebrities and brands by making it reflexive: the stars of his works are only endorsing themselves. His artworks traffic in “unfulfilled dreams,” unattainable not because consumers won’t get to spritz themselves with Greed, but because celebrity—as the title of his Gagosian show suggests—is entirely a function of worship. Celebrities don’t exist, only people (real people) and the concept of celebrity. “These websites,” Vezzoli says, referring to online gossip rags, “they are flourishing like mushrooms! Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me there’s still a universe to dream and fantasize. The Greeks did that with their gods, and we will do the same.”

If the pop art of Warhol’s day sought to make an anti-elitist gesture by absorbing mass culture and replicating its modes of production, its vertiginous sameness, Vezzoli and Cotton are making a simultaneous, opposite gesture, deifying their subjects just as they’re calling out celebrities’ status—intentionally or not—as products of mass media. Pop stars aren’t cans of Campbell’s soup to be endlessly plucked from a silkscreen stencil: they’re Venuses and Madonnas, secular gods brought to life through the flicks of an oil brush or painstaking needlework.

“Most pop art was conceived as a reflection of what was going on in culture, the celebrities that were out there. It was a passive and reflexive mode,” says Richard Phillips, a 48-year-old artist whose studio occupies one light-filled rectangle of an immense, Fritz Lang-like complex on Manhattan’s west side. “These paintings,” he says, sweeping an arm around the room, “are not focused on idolatry or fandom. They’re deliberate, powerful images meant to communicate a projection.” Phillips is gesturing at a group of 10 portraits—renderings of Dakota Fanning, Justin Timberlake, Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Swift, Zac Efron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chace Crawford, and Taylor Momsen—which he created for “Most Wanted,” a show that opened in late January at White Cube on London’s Hoxton Square. (A certain demographic will recognize Phillips’ art from Lily van der Woodsen’s personal collection on CW’s Gossip Girl.) With five outsize faces on each of two opposing walls, the effect—a pantheon of pop icons, nearly all of them under 30—is not unlike the uncanny shiver of recognition one experiences at Madame Tussauds. But where wax figures aspire to facsimile, Justin Timberlake’s goatee looks like it’s made from Play-Doh spaghetti. Phillips insists this is the point.

Based on a series of 13 portraits Andy Warhol screened for the 1962 World’s Fair, the luminescent faces of “Most Wanted” are matched to the top-10 grossing luxury brands. The background of Taylor Momsen’s portrait is comprised of Chanel’s crossed C’s; Robert Pattinson plugs Louis Vuitton. “In a way, the relationship between them all is an impossibility, because you could never get this group to be in a magazine layout together,” says Phillips. The stars’ silhouettes are outlined by electrified nimbuses, a reference to late-’70s Interview magazine, during Warhol’s reign as editor, but also to “secular deification,” says Phillips. “They are the young gods of today.” Far from encouraging fanboy adulation, however, Phillips hopes to interrogate that moment of spontaneous red-carpet recognition—to question the probity of Timberlake’s facial hair.

Just as Cotton and Vezzoli pepper their work with art-historical references, Phillips invokes Hans Holbein, a Northern Renaissance painter, to explain the tension he hopes to create with “Most Wanted.” Holbein’s studies of Europe’s 16th-century elites tended to exhibit his patrons’ names in gilded lettering—not unlike Phillips’ brand logos—and he managed to suffuse the faces of his subjects, via a method of tonal compression that’s still used today, with a fleshy realism so warm and back-lit as to be genuinely unnerving. Phillips used the same technique to achieve the adolescent glow of Swift’s cheek, and then added points of divergence. “Painterly codes and methods are very much alive in these paintings,” he says. “Taylor Swift’s lips are stuck on, but the flesh tone seems so believable.”

Phillips is trying to reconfigure the autopilot relationship we have with celebrity. Painting, a medium which is expressly “not media,” forces a reconsideration of one’s actual, physically determined association with fame. “Being in the presence of a large portrait can kind of resolve that,” he says. “This body of work resists the rush of media and allows for contemplation of what our relationships are to this phenomenon, this capacity for us to fall all over ourselves, to worship these individuals.” They also make us consider our complicity in the semi-frozen, semi-lifelike 20-somethings’ fame—the extent to which they are projections of our own collective desires—as well as the complicity of the art world. “They do speak about the art market and the relationships between art institutions,” says Phillips, “their need for celebrities to bolster their waning interest from the public.”

Advertising and cartoon imagery, like the Jetsons and the Flintstones—two families of historical extremes—invaded the mind of artist Kenny Scharf from an early age. Scharf, along with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, was an important figure in the 1980s East Village scene, and during that decade he painted several rubbery, surrealistic album covers for the B-52s. “I was a groupie and I still am a groupie,” he tells me when I call him at his studio in Los Angeles.

When asked what’s changed about the art world since the days of Haring’s Pop Shop, a gallery gift shop of sorts that shuttered in 2005, Scharf says that there are no longer easily discernible, monolithic trends replacing each other in wave-like succession. “There’s too much information for there to be one way of looking at things,” he says.

Back in the ’80s, Scharf became interested in working with a big-name, lowbrow corporation, Kmart or Wal-Mart. He was excited by the idea of distributing his artworks on a larger scale, of designing objects—plastic toys, for example—that would sell in America’s temples of consumption. The trick would be to get funding, but no one, it seemed, was game. “I think I was just a little too ahead of my time,” he says judiciously. The art world hadn’t yet caught up to consumer culture, trundling through decades in a sequence of relatively cut-and-dry movements. “In the ’80s, when I wanted to do all this stuff, I felt that Warhol had legitimized this kind of idea where art could be commercial and noncommercial, and we thought, that was 20 years ago, so now we can do it. But there was a stigma still very much attached to artists being in a ‘commercial world’ back then. It was like, ‘You’re selling out.’ No, we were reaching out. A lot of the art world didn’t get it.”

What has changed since Warhol? Not the nature of celebrity. Cotton, Vezzoli, and Phillips demonstrate that idol worship hasn’t undergone any serious modifications since people first started projecting their best and worst qualities outside themselves thousands of years ago. What’s changed is the art world and the artists, who’ve eviscerated the ironic distance between themselves and pop culture—our secular/saintly vessel—opting instead to participate actively in its production. “I see now—40 years after Warhol, and 20 years after Pop Shop—now it’s okay,” Scharf says. “Finally, people understand that it’s part of the dialogue. It’s part of what art is.”

Top: Red, Blonde and Blue a portrait of Lindsay Lohan by Richard Phillips, 2010, oil on linen, 77 3/4 x 60 3/4”

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