But these otherworldly paintings spring from a very down-to-earth process. One that begins with research and some unorthodox baking: it could be creating a giant cake, setting up an ice cream mountain in his shower, building a gingerbread house and deconstructing it in the rain, or molding candy ribbons into a crown.We visited Cotton in his Chinatown studio for a conversation about the realities behind whipping up a candy-coated dream world and the importance of authenticity when it comes to engaging your audience.
Do you work seven days a week?
Do you get a lot of inspiration just looking at current art in the city?
I do. And it’s a funny thing because sometimes it’s sort of negative inspiration. I just hate everything I see and it makes me think, wow I’m really good, and I’m on to something. And then other times it’s really quite the opposite. I think this is so amazing. I have to go back to my studio and try to rise to the occasion. I think that dialogue is super-important. It’s a dialogue because I come back to my studio and respond to what I’ve seen.
Is it important to always keep drawing?
I can have an idea that I’ve been tossing around in my head for a long time. But as soon as I start drawing it, working with it, I’ll know almost immediately whether it’s a good or bad idea. But as long as it’s not formed, I never know. I guess my advice is just start working on it, a pattern, a thought, and see where it goes. And be willing to let it go nowhere. There are a lot of ideas that just have to die.
What’s the biggest challenge in your paintings? The beginning? The ending?
It’s actually the middle. The start and the end are actually the most fun. I’ve found that it’s that third week in a six-week painting where I’m thinking, “Where do I go from here?”
As soon as I start drawing an idea, working with it, I know almost immediately whether it’s good or bad.
How do you get through the challenge?
It’s discipline. I work a standard day. I get up at 7:30am and do the sort of vast e-mailing stuff first. It takes about an hour. And then I get into the studio by 9am and work straight through till 6pm. I try to not let the time get broken up by too much. And then not work weekends.
Why sugar? Would you consider it a vice?
It is a vice. I do love sugar. But I used to have other vices too. I think the other vices have just fallen by the wayside, and sugar has stepped up a little bit to take their place. But that’s not actually why I got into it. In the beginning, I was looking at ad icons as a metaphor for pleasure and desire. Something that would be really universal. There’s something about sweets and sugar that makes most people’s eyes light up a little bit, or at least understand that it’s about a kind of desire that has no place in terms of necessity. So it’s just for pleasure, and that’s what I was after. I wanted to make a whole place that’s just about pleasure.
These other worlds you create, would you consider them physical places in your mind?
Oh very much so. In fact, when I’m thinking of new ideas, I’m trying to imagine which ones are best. I really just clear my mind and think, “Well, what would it really be like?” And of course it’s a silly question. There is no real. But somehow it feels answerable to me, like, “Oh it would never be like that, it would be like this.” That’s where it gets interesting.
Your recent work, from opening a pop-up bakery to designing pajamas for Creative Time, has crossed many genres. What led you to explore so many different mediums?
It’s part of this idea that I have that every morning when I come into the studio, I have to believe that anything is possible. As opposed to coming in and thinking, “OK, what do I have to do today to keep being me?” I don’t want to think that ever. It doesn’t have to take the form of a drawing, a painting, or a sculpture or anything I’ve ever done before. It could be that the most interesting succinct direct expression of what I’m thinking about is something like opening a temporary bakery. And I’m very attached to that idea.
There’s something about sweets and sugar that makes people’s eyes light up a little bit.
These other projects have made your work more accessible to the greater public. Did that end up reflecting on your work in anyway?
I was definitely thinking about that with the bakery. It was coming out of this thing that we’re doing right now, having people to the studio, and sometimes I got stuck baking at the end. So the whole studio smells like cakes and you can see cakes, paintings of cakes. Maybe there’s someone posing. There’s this whole experiential element that’s really olfactory.
And I thought, I want some way to get that out to everybody else who may not have the privilege of coming here to the studio and being a part of it. And that’s when the bakery came in. And also in terms of just general public as opposed to art world public, I decided to do it in such a way that the stuff is really affordable. So I’m not making a $30,000 cake. I’m making a $6 cake, and I really like that.
Have you ever worked on a sugar high?
Yeah, I’ve done that consciously. Like I said about the smells, there will be times when I’m working on something that has ice cream in it, and I think, I’ll have some ice cream. Because a lot of what I do is about trying to feel authentic. And because I’m painting pictures that aren’t authentic in fact, that are completely imagined, and to me one of the worst pitfalls is looking like a children’s book illustration, or something that is just automatically unreal or surreal. That doesn’t interest me at all.
I want you to look at it and think, that’s just real. I’m looking at that and feel like I could walk into that. And I believe that this is a real place, that you’ve convinced me that this is a real place. And I think that part of that is just being around it as much as I possibly can. And when I can just bring the thing completely into being in the studio.
Are the places you create places that you dream about?
I do. You could say they become my happy place.