Goff + Rosenthal is proud to present Ain Cocke’s first solo exhibition in New York.
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.