Rococo Romance

Words Ruth Hickman

On first inspection, Jesse Mockrin’s work feels more National Gallery than Downtown LA. Her oil-painted figurative portraits are executed with the grace of masters gone. But appearances can be deceiving, as I learn it’s as much popular culture and gender boundaries that inform Jesse as it is the rococo greats.

When Jesse warmly meets me at her low-key studio in the garden of her Los Angeles home, it’s what the locals refer to as ‘June gloom’. I’ve just landed from New York, where naturally the sun had been beaming, to find my first trip to LA ridden with grey skies. ‘People talk about the light in LA being really good for painting, and I think it’s kind of true,’ says Jesse in contrast to the weather outside, ‘I used to have a bigger studio space that had this big skylight, and I made all of these black paintings, and I think it was partly that I had such good light I could see what I was doing.’

Represented by Night Gallery, a contemporary art space in Downtown Los Angeles, the city is home to Jesse, her husband and their two-year-old son, ‘I think there is more of a trend to be able to live anywhere in art because so much happens over the Internet now, but it still feels for the relationships that it’s important to be in a major city, to be in LA or New York; to be able to have studio visits, to be able to go meet with other artists. LA is funny in that it’s so big and so much is happening, but at the same time you can be kind of sequestered away. I think that influences my work.’

Jesse Mockrin School of Love, Oil on linen, 2016 Courtesy of Night Gallery

“People talk about the light in LA being really good for painting, and I think it’s kind of true.”

Jesse Mockrin Garden of Love, Oil on linen, 2016 Courtesy of Night Gallery

Aside from her environment, the influence of rococo masters François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard is all too clear throughout the paintings in Jesse’s recent, critically acclaimed solo show at Night Gallery in March 2016 titled The Progress of Love. ‘It’s named after a suite of paintings by Fragonard,’ says Jesse, ‘He and Boucher both have these really amazing colours and this exaggerated style. There’s all this lush greenery and this weird androgyny in the faces that I thought was really interesting. I have an interest in questioning gender boundaries and I’m drawn to androgyny and to time periods in which the gender codes are different than they are now.’

It’s as Jesse prepares for her next solo show – her first in New York – that our introduction takes place and we discuss the parallels between her recent and forthcoming works. ‘I’ve been looking at a lot of images from men’s fashion magazines in this body of work, and the one from the show in March,’ explains Jesse. ‘That was what made this connection for me. I saw this genderless thing happening in menswear, and there were all these florals, this opulence, and it had this connection for me with the rococo. And maybe it’s even deliberate, maybe designers are looking to that period, and that’s why.’ It’s commons&sense man that Jesse picked up from Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore in LA, that she cites as her bridge between the contemporary and the eighteenth century, ‘I was looking at all these images of K-pop stars and then images of these more androgynous adolescent portraits from the past. They’re making the guys look younger and more feminine, and I think it’s making them less threatening, you know? It’s not so much sexuality, as it is, like… romance!’

“I have an interest in questioning gender boundaries and I’m drawn to androgyny and to time periods in which the gender codes are different than they are now.”

Romance is unquestionably present throughout Jesse’s work, but I point out that it’s hard to deny a sense of sexual suggestion also. ‘Yeah, there’s a lot about what you’re not seeing outside the frame,’ says Jesse with a smile. ‘I think as much as I’m interested in fantasy, and in these sort of adolescent ideas of romance and fantasy, the cropping is part of what restricts that, your access to that. I do think of the images as like these little windows into which things are being inserted from the outside. Instead of seeing the full scene as a painting, you’re just getting this little view, and because I’ve been layering things up with the pattern and the texture, there’s also this compression of space. Both of those things, I think, help it feel more contemporary.’

Jesse’s show is planned for November this year, so paintings are in progress when we meet, ‘I make little drawings and they’re based on either historical or contemporary images,’ says Jesse, ‘so there are similarities to the last show. It’s still dealing with the eighteenth century and menswear, and with pattern and florals, but the last show was all exterior and this show is all interior. In this painting the wallpaper – it’s actually wallpaper that’s based on chinoiserie – [creates] that confusion, you know, is this outdoor space or indoor space? And so I’m still interested in playing with that, but looking at all these interiors.’

Painting every week day, it takes Jesse around three months to complete a piece, working on many at a time. ‘I’ll spend a day working on that one – it might take more than one day – but then the next day I work on that one, you know? I’m doing all the skin first, and then I’ll do all the clothes, and then I’ll do backgrounds. For a while I was doing these black backgrounds, and the last show was very blue, green, and so this one I think is going to be warmer.’

Jesse Mockrin Love and Friendship, Oil on linen, 2016 Courtesy of Night Gallery

“I do think of the images as like these little windows into which things are being inserted from the outside. Instead of seeing the full scene as a painting, you’re just getting this little view.”

Jesse Mockrin The Forest, Oil on linen, 2015 Courtesy of Night Gallery

With this level of skill, you’d be forgiven for thinking Jesse’s painterly fate was signed, sealed and delivered early on. ‘When I was twenty-four I left New York and I went and I moved to Honduras for two years. I went with two friends and we started a non-profit organisation called OYE, Organization for Youth Empowerment. They give scholarships to kids who need them to go to school. I was there for two years,’ says Jesse. After returning to New York she put her newly acquired Spanish language skills to good use working as a paralegal at the Legal Aid Society’s immigration unit. ‘After six months there I left,’ she says. ‘I had applied for art school and a masters in international and public affairs. The masters in international affairs was really expensive, and the art school I’d applied to was funded. Most art schools aren’t, but it seemed really crazy to take on all of this debt to then want to go do international development work, for which you would not be paid very well. So the art thing was such a gamble, but at the same time the school was free, so what was the risk, you know? And then I just got really into it.’ It was Jesse’s inclusion in the 2013 exhibition “Made in Space” at Night Gallery, which also travelled to Venus Over Manhattan and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, that made her feel like it really could be possible. ‘I had just made the first of those paintings with those black backgrounds and that went into that show. I was making all these little paintings at the same time and they’re goofy and weird and not working, and then for six months I just worked on this one painting, and when it was done I was like, “I think I did something with that, I think something happened,” and so that was this thread that I could follow out, and keep making. The idea that I could have one skill that I could learn more and more about, and become an expert at one thing seemed really appealing.’

Each piece of a Mockrin painting is executed in oil on linen, ‘I think the main reason for oil is the layering I do with the skin, so I build it up in multiple layers,’ she says. ‘I’m working on that right now. Oil paint allows you to build it up and it has this soft, velvety texture. It’s the thing that I got used to, started working with, and was like “I’m going to figure this out, this one thing, this one way, I will figure it out.’’ There really aren’t a lot of physical brushstrokes. I try to contrast with more movement in the clothes, or the background, trying to keep it more loose. I would love to paint more loosely; that’s part of the reason I love George Condo, and painters like that. In my heart that’s what I want to be.’

With an entrepreneurial mindset and the focus to just figure it out, it’s hard to deny that at some point Jesse could be painting à la Condo. With a long-standing interest in gender – Mockrin’s final year photography thesis in art college addressed gender issues – it is likely that that will form a consistent thread, but outside of that is anyone’s guess, including Jesse’s. ‘I do think consistently in my work I’m looking at some historical period and something happening in contemporary popular culture,’ concludes Jesse, ‘and drawing some sort of connection between the two. So the eighteenth century happens to be the period that I’m interested in at the moment, but before, you know, it was something else, and what direction that will go, yeah, I don’t know.’ We’ll just have to wait and see.

Jesse Mockrin Comes in Colours Everywhere, Oil on linen, 2015 Courtesy of Night Gallery