Contemporary Art

Jesse Mockrin: Identity and Art History

The artist uses the power of art historical images to discuss gender in the present

In 2020, Vogue magazine commissioned artist Jesse Mockrin to create a portrait of Billie Eilish. Mockrin sent back five sketches set within carefully defined rectangles in the pages of her sketchbook. Each drawing envisioned Eilish as the main figure in a historical portrait. Vogue selected the composition with the pop star inhabiting Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit (1593). Caravaggio’s famously androgynous figure captured Eilish’s refusal of traditional gender roles; the excessive and ephemeral basket of fruit commented on her rising fame.

Some Contemporary artists are really interested in art history, and some are not. “I just happen to be one of those who is interested,” Mockrin explained in a recent conversation. “One of the things I’m aiming to do by re-engaging with this history is take narratives that were painted at specific times in European art history and bring them into our present context.” 

Each of Mockrin’s shows consists of a group of works centered around a central theme. “This interest in gender is very consistent,” she says. “Sometimes the bodies of work are really focused on androgyny and the dissolution of the gender binary in these [art historical] images. Sometimes the work is really focused on a narrative of a female character in art history, talking about that experience specifically of being a woman in that time period and how different or similar it is to being a woman in this moment.”

Mockrin’s practice takes visual elements from European oil painting, but her process is highly informed by photography and contemporary images. She began her training in painting; then during her undergraduate studies, she switched to photography. Eventually she returned to painting, but “the idea of “the crop” and balanced-but-unbalanced compositions comes from looking at and taking a lot of photographs.” In her conversation with Vogue, she elaborated on her preference for working from photo references. “My work is so much about the image—the image of the icon, the images of the paintings that are reproduced in books or on the internet.”

As such, Mockrin’s visual research is not limited to European painting. She described fastidiously (and constantly) collecting images from fashion photography, magazine editorials, and Instagram. Her interest in the power of images and representation drives her fascination with art history. “Those art historical images show how people dress in a particular place and moment. I am looking at the tradition of how oil paint has been used and to what effect over time,” Mockrin elaborates. The manner in which Mockrin appropriates and recontextualizes art historical images conveys her keen understanding of the power of the image throughout history. She harnesses images from the past to shape her own approach to painting.

One hallmark of Mockrin’s style is her unusual treatment of hands, which she describes as “a type of Mannerism but a little more rubbery and tickly.” She cites Ingres, Fragonard, and Boucher in developing this element of her visual language. The dramatically curled digits call to mind the softened shoulders of Ingres’ Princesse de Broglie, curved to the point of deformity. Mockrin uses anatomy to emphasize questions of agency. “It’s when you think about what those hands can do, what it means to have hands without joints. You idealize it by making it more elegant and more curving, but then you get to a point where it’s grotesque because you have boneless hands that can’t manipulate the world,” she explains.  

While Mockrin’s work is always evolving, the driving tenets of her practice have remained consistent over the seven solo shows she has had in the past eight years. Mockrin’s most recent exhibition Reliquary at Night Gallery closed at the end of June. Currently, she is preparing for the Lyon Biennale, which opens in September. She is creating a new painting for the presentation that will be displayed alongside some of her older works, which is a first for the artist. “There are certain throughlines in the work that I hope will connect them when they are brought together in conversation,” Mockrin explains. While the imagery may be inspired by European art history, the grouping of these works creates Mockrin’s own canon.

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