Interview w/ Shock Artist Mike Cockrill About His Sexual Motivations
In the early 1980's, Mike Cockrill and his collaborator Judge Hughes came up with the quintessential NSFW comic named The White Papers. The 128-page black and white book in the form of a wordless graphic novel, meaning it was one big volume as opposed to an ongoing series, went on to become a cult classic.
Just how graphic is The White Papers? Well, it starts off with the Kennedy assassination, in which you see the President's brains exploding all over his wife Jackie. Then the frame pans out to reveal a seemingly ordinary American family watching the incidence on TV. However, when you take a closer look you see that the mom is loading up on pills and the brother and sister are fucking each other. The tale continues with twists and turns, but in a nutshell the boy eventually becomes a member of the Manson family and the girl drifts away to join The Beatles in a hotel room for some pervy action sports. The boy gets even more ugly further into the book until he winds up in New York and executes John Lennon.
After years of getting relentless shit from the nerdy girls at bookstores that thought the comic was unnecessarily vulgar, Mike pulled it from the shelves. So, unfortunately it's now only available via eBay trades and pleading emails to the artist. However, I'm sure his action of taking it away from the world probably had a lot more to do with his falling out with his crazed collaborator than the innocent girls in glasses.
"Judge Hughes became a zealot for destroying the art world and decided to get rid of the gallery that was representing us. We ended up being interviewed by High Times Magazine the same day he told me and he proceeded to go on about his Marxist-Anarchist position. But when the interviewer asked me what I thought about the situation, I had to say that my position was inconsistent with Judge's. I wanted to get another gallery and keep going. By the end of the tape you hear us parting ways via a tremendous argument."
Over the phone Mike Cockrill is well spoken and happy; a far cry from the character you'd probably imagine him to be from the brutal artistic imaginings discussed above. So it's peculiar that he ended up collaborating with the manic Judge to begin with. Especially, since in art school he had been trained in a pretty formalist background of painting and had the same creepy Catholic boy upbringing as everyone else on his block.
"After a while of painting like Edward Hopper, I realized I had hit a wall and needed a story. I was intrigued by the concept that paintings could be bad and offensive and I wanted to shift to those ideas. So, when I initially talked to Judge he told me that he had an idea for a painting, which eventually became The White Papers."
Around this same time Mike's wife had walked out on him and he had quite rightfully become an angry young man. With no gallery to back him and no romantic sidekick at the time, he began exploring the devilish side of his creativity. Creating pieces like Win A Date With Brooke where the viewer was encouraged to go into the exhibition space and fuck the painting with a dildo. He also felt that he could move even further away from his formalist training by collaborating with someone else on his work.
"Judge would say something like let's paint a blow job scene, but make it look like a medical illustration where the jaw is cut away on the girl to reveal the penis and all of its veins inside of her mouth. Back in those days we would smoke a joint and sit there late at night in the loft totally jamming mentally on crazy ideas."
When the comic was released in New York around 1982, it became an instant underground hit. All of a sudden establishments like The New Museum were calling Mike up to check out his latest body of work and newspapers were writing articles claiming that the collaborators were the most offensive living artists ever. But oddly with all the demand, it was still tough for Mike to get his work actually shown. Curators were afraid of it at the time, which seems odd now considering they'll easily display a pregnant cow presented in segmented blocks of formaldehyde [Damian Hirst] or skinned human bodies playing cards for children to walk around [Gunther von Hagens]. But back before the Internet and its ease of accessibility to the most debasing pornos and sub-cults imaginable, Mike's paintings were still extremely shocking.
However, fans of the comic could care less about what curators or big time gallerists thought. To them, Mike was their patron saint. He was their vehicle for realizing the wicked sides to their imaginations. The hugely successful artist Walton Ford even wrote Mike a letter once thanking him for mixing sex, politics, and violence into his work because he felt it gave him permission to put it into his own.
So, at first glance, it may seem sad that Mike and Judge never released more books together, but when one opens their eyes to the wider scope of Mike Cockrill's whole artistic career, he's made many incredible paintings without the aid of a co-conspirator. Also, yes, for you conspiracy theorists out there, I did notice that placing their names just then as Mike and Judge seems to oddly come together to form the singular name Mike Judge, who would years later become famous as the creator of Beavis and Butthead, yet another notorious work of art, but stay with me on Earth here for the rest of the article.
After their "breakup" Mike decided to go back to making fine art paintings. However, it was a harder transition to make than you might imagine, since he no longer had a gallery representing him once again and only a recent body of cartoonish works due to all the time spent with the book. He was ready and determined through it all though, so he kept at it until eventually his paintings began to be sought after by art collectors like the Forbes Family and Nicholas Cage.
His work may have changed a lot stylistically since the days of The White Papers, but his paintings still tend to feature rather strange subject matters, albeit not as severe as the ones he explored back then. He's now most well known for his clown killer girls series, which features a variety of cute little girls in 50s dresses brutally causing the demise of seemingly innocent clowns.
"I didn't start selling my work until the clown killer girls. I had been encouraged to paint them by a collector who thought they would be commercially viable. But when it came time to make all the prints and posters the work wasn't exactly what he had in mind. He is a great person, but I don't think he knew too much about art."
Mike's work has never really been an "easy" sell to collectors though. However, among artists, art directors, and other creatives he's often a favorite. I think it's what makes him what many would consider an artists' artist - the non-sell out - the one person that people in the know respect, but those outside don't understand yet.
"My paintings were once featured in a prestigious show that you had to be nominated by multiple people to get into. By the end of it, I wasn't given an award nor did anyone buy anything, but New York Magazine published images of their two favorite works. One was by the legendary Matisse and the other was by me."
I'm jealous of anyone living in New York right now because Mike is going to be unveiling a whole new body of work for only one night on August 18th in Bushwick, Brooklyn. After the event is over, Mike is planning on taking all the paintings back to his studio and keeping them hidden for a while. Maybe, kind reader, you will even send me one for giving you a hot tip, a serious nightmare, and a whole lotta random factoids.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.