Jesse Mockrin’s reworkings of the art historical canon do not only recontextualize it for the current moment–nor do they simply seek to refute this history–her body of work flows along a lineage of painting that is immediately recognizable in its roots while giving new life to its contemporary forms. The point of departure from this descent is precisely where Mockrin’s paintings find their mystery and imminent lure.
Jesse Mockrin lives and works in Los Angeles.
What was your rose and thorn this week?
The thorn was that my three year old child was sick with a cold. Because of COVID, it shut our whole family down. We were all trapped at home, as we are anyway, but with no childcare. But thankfully he did not have COVID, so now we've been freed. The rose would be the very good phone conversation I had yesterday with that same child, which was really entertaining. I've never talked to him on the phone before.
When you were showing us your recent works, I wanted to ask you about the lighting and tonality of your paintings. Most of your early work is pretty realistic in terms of coloring and the overall tone of the painting. A lot of the stuff I've seen recently, the entire painting relies on certain overarching tones. What is the cause of that transition? Is the intention cinematic, surreal?
I started a green painting that I haven’t been able to finish, because it turns out green is a hard color to work with. When I started working on my next show, I was like, “everything's gonna be in this green palette.” And quickly that became, “Oh, no, nevermind, everything's gonna be pink - sunset, evening, fire colors.” Solving that green painting will be a good project for me - figuring out how to make it work. Part of my motivation is that color is something that's hard, and it feels important to always keep pushing and learning.
Vogue asked me actually if I needed to meet Billie Eilish, if I needed her to come pose in person, and they were worried because of how hard it would be to arrange with her schedule. And I was like, “Oh, no, I don't. Please just put her by a window and take a picture with some natural light.”
I don't know how actually meeting her would have changed things. I think I'm so interested in the image of her and the way she constructs her identity and her gender through her appearance, that working from photographs made perfect sense.
After painting those K-pop stars, I did meet one of them in person. That show was in Seoul, in South Korea, and one of the stars came to the opening. And it was bizarre to actually meet one of them in person.
Then I finally just let myself appropriate directly from an old painting. I think it was partly due to the fact that I had these images around my studio all the time. I was always photocopying them or printing them out and piling them up around my space. And I was like, “well, maybe I should just do it,” even though it felt like something that was forbidden. All of that is such rich territory to make something from - I’m endlessly interested in it and it feels like maybe I shouldn't be doing it. So all that feels like the kind of complicated place that is good to be making work from. But it's not like I grew up around art historians or anything specific like that - everyone in my family is actually involved in the sciences in one way or another.
The Enjoyable Lesson was part of a show that was inspired by paintings from the Rococo period, as well as contemporary men’s fashion images. That show was focused on the dissolution of the gender binary in both realms of visual culture - so maybe a sense of suspension (maybe more than suspense) relates well to the idea of being in between, not easily categorized, neither historical nor contemporary, neither male nor female.
But then I had a show of work influenced by Rococo and fashion open right before the 2016 election. As soon as that election happened, it felt like all this work about surface and visual pleasure and decoration and sensuality was out of step with the tensions in the world. So I think that going forward I embraced more aggressive imagery, and more of this Baroque style of action, which was deliberate. It felt more right to me, in relation to our times. The content of the art historical work became more foregrounded, and the work became more about the meaning of these mythological or biblical stories, as opposed to the foregrounding of visual pleasure and construction of space in the Rococo-inspired works. I like both.
That is part of what makes those paintings work on a formal level, the high contrast between light and dark, the chiaroscuro that's happening in those paintings. I like erasing the context. I think about the frame of the canvas kind of like the viewfinder of a camera, and these hands are reaching into the frame against a black background, like a glimpse inside a theater where all sorts of unlikely scenes are being constructed in real life. While the relationship to gravity in the work is often improbable, I never want it to be impossible, because I don’t want the work to verge into the totally surreal. With some of the larger paintings that have a little bit of ground across the bottom, the space functions sort of like a diorama or a theater set, or a tableau vivant. I guess the lack of context, being unmoored from time - that universal dramatic setting is what interests me.
Syrinx was the name of the exhibition and the book because that series of work included a lot of abduction imagery, including one that was about the story of Syrinx, who Pan attempts to rape. She's a footnote in a story that's all about Pan, and his discovery of music, and the sublimation of desire into the act of creation. But this allegory is all at the price of her terror. So the show became named after her as a way of foregrounding her story. And it's a good word, so it made for a good title.