As Sweet as Katy Perry



Will Cotton‘s most recent painting, a pin-up-inspired portrait of Katy Perry, began with an email.
A few months ago, through his web site, the artist received an inquiry about his work from a “Katheryn Hudson.” The paintings she wanted weren’t available. But as a fan of Katy Perry (he’d torn out magazine images of her, admiring her style) Cotton knew enough to wonder if the email was from the pop star. (Perry, Katy’s stage name, is her mother’s maiden name.)
“So I wrote back, ‘If this is Katy Perry, would you like to pose for me?'” Cotton said.
Cotton Candy Katy (2010) is the product of Perry and Cotton’s subsequent meeting. The painting depicts Perry in Cotton’s signature blend of fantasy and naturalism: the nude Perry figure in the work lounges on her stomach, her head resting on her arms, amidst a cloud of pink cotton candy. The pose resembles a more demure, but still coy take on the one in Cotton’s similarly-themed Cotton Candy Sky (2006), in which a female nude reclines in a bed of clouds with her arms framing her head.
Cotton Candy Katy serves as the cover for Perry’s album Teenage Dream, out later this month; photographs by Cotton make up the rest of the album art. When Perry came to New York to pose for Cotton at his Chinatown studio, Cotton took hundreds of photographs of her in the sweets-based hats and jewelry he makes. She also wore a dress made to look like oversized foil cupcake papers, sewn for him by his friend, the designer Cynthia Rowley.
Although Cotton has painted other famous people, including Tom Ford, his models are generally regular folk—friends of his, professional art models, or someone he meets whose look he particularly likes. (Disclosure: This writer has modeled for Cotton before, at the New York Academy of Art, where the artist is a senior critic and teaches the occasional master class.) And Cotton, who is represented by Mary Boone Gallery, is not unfamiliar with attention from the art world or, more recently, the TV-watching public; he was a guest judge on the Bravo reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.
But his collaboration with Perry represents a new level of popular and commercial exposure.
“Clearly it’s a very different kind of exposure, in a different context,” Cotton said. “But I thought, It’s a good match. What she wants happens to be exactly what I want to do.”
After he finished the painting, Cotton was approached to act as artistic director for Perry’s video for her single “California Gurls,” which features, among other things, Perry and a crew of dancers in cupcake bikini tops.
“There are so many instances where an artist is quoted without actually being part of it–advertising, videos–and I thought it was great they actually wanted me to be there,” said Cotton, who flew out to Los Angeles to consult on the set.
The “California Gurls” experience also allowed the artist to see his usual practice “in a very scaled-up version.” Customarily, Cotton makes his cupcake tiaras and candy baubles in his studio, or he sometimes borrows a friend’s commercial kitchen. “California Gurls” had set builders and designers. “I wish I had those at my disposal all the time!” Cotton said. There may be the opportunity to translate the sugary themes of his landscapes into even grander scale, he said, by working with Perry on her tour sets. 
He is currently interested in finding materials that mimic super-sized candy or that are actually candy. For example, at his studio, he showed me a tree branch made out of cast sugar that could just as easily be made of resin.
“I think whenever people do this there’s a tendency to get a little silly, a little childish with the imagery,” Cotton said. “What’s always drawn me to these kinds of images is the materiality. It actually feels like a large amount of something we only know on a small scale, and so how much cotton candy could we actually make?”
While Cotton works out these questions, he’ll also be busy with a few other projects. Besides the cupcake-paper dress, he’s working on six other costume designs that he wants to try out in paintings. One is an interpretation of foil hard-candy wrappers, layered with cellophane. Cotton is also tackling a more classical subject in a painting that will be part of a Lisa Dennison-curated exhibition at Sotheby’s later this fall. The theme is Dante’s Divine Comedy and he’s been tasked to paint paradise. Cotton is still formulating the idea but said the painting will be similar to some of the work he showed at Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris this spring.
He envisions a ground plane of liquid ice cream moving up to a mass of frozen ice cream, and onward to very structured, architectural clouds populated with a few human forms. It’ll be a bit like a Boucher painting, he said, with the three materials: “It’s a little bit of a nod to traditional depictions of paradise.”