Music and visual artists have a way of becoming co-conspirators. For a moment we’ll forget artists who came up primarily as album cover designers and focus on those who worked independent of the industry and somehow found themselves inside it.
Read the last Popdose on '33 Revolutions Per Minute,' about protest songs.
Think of the Very Special Christmas music compilations and you’ll likely see Keith Haring’s dancing outline figurines. Your mind’s eye thinks of Madonna and probably will do so based on an image photographed by Herb Ritts. Duran Duran had Patrick Nagel, and what of the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol and a banana?
Into this world comes Will Cotton, whose photos and paintings detail a landscape of whipped-peak meringue, cotton candy cloudy skies and rivers of oozing chocolate. He also adds in the occasional woman with greater or lesser degrees of clothing, but it is never a blatant stab at sex. Instead, his figures flirt with the coquettish charms of 1930s and ’40s pin-ups and, in most respects, are represented demurely, even with the stray nipple showing here and there.
Pop star Katy Perry is his most prominent commission so far, and a natural one at that. She had already shown the twin attributes of outrageousness and affinity for those pin-up styles, so Cotton’s designs for her Teenage Dream CD were meant for each other.
It has been said that in a psychological sense, Cotton’s work is extremely sexual, that the combination of the forthright woman and the sugary treats as scenario both reflect urges, desire for things perhaps best left unattainable, satisfying in the immediate but ultimately not very good for you. More pointedly, some have just put it down to some kink that Cotton likes to fetishize.
I suppose you could look at it that way, but upon seeing the plates in the book Will Cotton: Paintings and Works on Paper (Rizzoli) the assessment still seems unfair. To me, Cotton goes out of his way to keep his fantasies, dare I say it, wholesome. His compositions hearken back to those early-to-mid 20th century glamour pictures, not so much those of more recent pin-up artists like Olivia De Berardinis who, even at her most elegant, still presents sexuality front-and-center.
In both cases though it can still be taken that these have artistic merit, one appeals to a more mature demographic, that’s all. It all leads me to think of another recent sex symbol icon aside from Cotton’s muse Perry; an unfortunate one at that, which causes me to feel great sadness. We’ll preface this with the comment made from a member of Congress who, when asked to define what pornography was, said he could not but knew it when he saw it.
For decades, the Playboy brand liked to paint itself as something other than that, not quite wholesome, but definitely not for kids. It had interviews! It had reviews and fiction! Its photography had artistic merit! All of which causes my eyes to severely roll, as my friends never kept their stash of Playboys in the bushes because their parents would have been shocked by Norman Mailer’s sparkling wit.
There is a way of representing the human form that, while unclothed, is not intended to titillate but merely to be. Playboy’s approach is not that one, and so the magazine is rightly seen as it often is; the place where young, naïve and surgically/digitally endowed women believe their careers will begin, and where once-sought-after starlets, attempting to get money at the last desperate stages, often end their careers, if not simply doing those careers disservice.
After years of scandal and controversy, Lindsay Lohan will pose for Playboy. The pictorial is purported to be of a very artistic nature, but it is assumed the primary audience that wants to see those photos would have no interest in Cotton’s work (and no, he is not involved with Lohan’s project). Lohan’s story is particularly heartbreaking. After achieving sudden fame in the Disney firmament with a series of family-friendly films, she moved on to the Tina Fey script of Mean Girls and became a sensation. Almost at the same time, she became a fixture of teeny bikini magazines like Maxim, FHM and Stuff, and the onward rush to make her a sex symbol was full speed ahead. She was still ridiculously young at the time.
Ordinary parents would have tried to pull back on those reins, but unfortunately for Lohan, she had parents that by most accounts did more to ruin her than save her. Her “friends,” the rich and spoiled of the Hollywood club set, made nasty comments about her behind her back but in front of the cameras. The only truly stable relationship she had was with girlfriend Samantha Ronson. And then there was the nonstop train of legal woes, starting with drunken and disorderly conduct, drug usage and culminating in a well-publicized jewelry theft. After many tries for getting her career back in line, she has now succumbed to the haggard belief that Playboy is where old celebrities go at the end of their career arc. It is hard not to believe it.
What does any of this have to do with Cotton and the book that celebrates his work? I think it all comes down to intention. Both examples, Cotton’s designs interspersed with human figures as well as the Playboy centerfold and pictorial, are based on the pin-up concept. One is done with sensitivity, whimsy, and a sense of purpose. The other is done for the sake of a rapidly diminishing “readership” who is really just interested in seeing “naked chicks.” For those so inclined, they’ll find the same in Cotton’s book, but it comes across in a vastly different, more respectful way. They probably won’t like his compositions.
While I cannot say that I like Perry’s music, I am intrigued by how she is moving with her career, as more a provocateur than one complicit in her own downfall, something I tend to attribute to Lohan. It is still troubling though. Anyone who saw Lohan when she was on her A-game acting-wise recognizes that she has something there, something more than the flesh she has so often been compelled to trade upon. That she was stuck in circles that seemed compelled only to exploit her is an injustice that was done to her, and one can only wonder what might have been had she broken out and trusted in her talent above any crutch of sex appeal.
The Playboy issue will likely be a big seller, once again justifying its nebulous existence, but probably shouldn’t. Cotton’s book, viewed as a beautiful coffee table collection of images, likely won’t be a big seller but probably ought to be. I suppose that says a lot more about society than we want it to. We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. Perry’s image may be defined by a shot of her lounging in cotton candy clouds. Lohan’s may be inside of a scandal magazine, and intention is the only thing that separates the two, yet makes all the difference in the world.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer/musician/artist hailing from Red Bank, N.J. He is an editor for the pop culture website Popdose as well as regular contributor.