In the second of a series of interviews with artists based in Los Angeles I visited the studio of the painter Jesse Mockrin who draws from the Rococo tradition to create her haunting and sensuous paintings.
Borrowing the rich folds of brocade and overflowing flower arrangements of Rococo and Baroque tradition, her works are steeped in the motifs of romance. Offset by the muted tone of the paint, and the eerie smoothness of the pale limbs of her figures, the paintings hold a lingering ambiguity. They reveal only a fragment – an outstretched arm, a leg surrounded by its skirts, two heads peaking from behind a curtain – it is as if we are glimpsing a moment from a much larger story. This theatricality and the lushness of her works seem quite at home in LA.
Mockrin told me more about her art:
Your paintings seem to hint at a narrative, is there an implied mystery there?
Yes, I think they’re designed to maintain the mystery. The cropping is important in restricting your access to the full narrative, sometimes you’re seeing just the central action and sometimes the central action is right off screen. It’s an ambiguous view.
Is that why you also take elements from famous rococo paintings like those of Jean-Honoré Fragonard?
Yes, for instance for one I took the central moment of the kicked off shoe from ‘The Swing’. I like cropping also because it flattens out everything, I think a lot about the construction of space on a 2-dimensional canvas. The cropping is restricting your access to the narrative, the fantasy of the painting, and partly it is also bringing things right to the foreground and creating a disorientating space. For my show ‘The Progress of Love’ I did have a narrative between the paintings, it was titled after the suite of paintings by Fragonard. You had a sense of a love story happening from frame to frame.
So do romantic ideas inform your work too?
Yes, I think that’s part of the reason I was drawn to Rococo and these periods that are full of romance, fantasy and artifice.
Why do you choose to make the skin of your figures so pale, is it the flatness that you’re interested in?
Maybe just a sense of other-worldliness, and the imagined lighting in a space. I like having the skin being hyper smooth, and then the texture in other parts of the painting.
Do you try and inject a certain melancholia into the works?
I’m going for an ambiguity of expression, so that’s its not too one thing or another.
Likewise there is a real ambiguity of gender too?
Yes, they are meant to be in between, their faces can be so similar that it’s not clear.
Its very like the new Gucci aesthetic?
I’m enjoying what Gucci are making and this interest in ‘feminine’ fabrics and accessories on men and the blurring of gender lines. You can see how much our ideas of gender change over time.
Much like 18th century male children whose gender was less marked by their clothes until an older age?
Yes. And fashion also has these elements of fantasy, artifice and romance. There is a visual link with Rococo, the lushness and florals, the leaves and lace. They were just learning about colour theory at the time, the contrast between pink and green would make the skin really show up. I build up the flesh tones with yellow, blue and red. The under-painting is all blue and white, they’re ghostly and powdery.
How does the city of LA shape you and your work?
In practical ways it definitely does: space is cheaper here, especially if you compare it to New York. The light in LA has an impact too. I first started making all these black paintings which would be hard to make if you didn’t have strong light and couldn’t see all the subtle changes in tone. And the flowers and leaves in my paintings are references; in one particular neighborhood within LA you can find all sorts of different types.