You might know the superstar artist from his work with Katy Perry — he's painted the singer (which then became her Teenage Dreams album cover), as well as served as the artistic director of her "California Gurls" music video. That same Candyland aesthetic can be spotted in his groundbreaking New York mag editorial, "Will Cotton’s Elle Fanning Fantasia" where he covered the actresses' designer dresses in a delectable display of frosting. Always the sweetheart (sorry, we had to), the award-winning creator let us quiz him on everything, from starting a collection on a budget to what it was like hanging with the ultimate Cali girl.
You've worked with everyone from Katy Perry to Elle Fanning. What's the relationship like right now between art and celebrity?
"I think artists are less afraid, at the moment, to make that a two-way exchange, to really take on the celebrity as a narrative entity like they might anything else within the painting."
With social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, there's the thought that everyone can be an "artist." What's your take on that?
"I look at it for inspiration. I like that stream of ideas and images are out there, and accessible, and being exchanged throughout millions of people constantly every day. Where that really differs from the art world is in the tangibility of what we're doing as artists — as painters particularly — making real objects. That's something that's kind of left out of that dialogue that exists outside of it, for the most part."
Do you think that the price range for most art is prohibitive for young collectors that are trying to get into the market?
"I think there's always a way in. I also think it's important to remember that there are different kinds of ownership. If you just come to something like the Sotheby's preview, you can have experience with all this work that you would never see otherwise that's very meaningful and profound even if you don't wind up having the winning bid at auction, or being able to buy it. That's always been a big part of my art experience. So, ownership can come along in a lot of different ways and times, but it's not a necessity in terms of art appreciation."
What would you say to people who want to start a collection but don't have a huge budget. Do you have any tips for them?
"Get to know artists. Every year in New York, there's virtually a new art scene starting up somewhere that's got a whole lot of young artists who are going to be interesting, or who are already becoming interesting, but don't have galleries yet or aren't represented. A young collector can be supportive of those people by showing interest in their work, and buying their work before it's at Gagosian."
Are there any up-and-coming artists that you're admiring right now?
"Yes, there's a couple out there — I stay in close contact with some of the art schools for that reason, too. That would be another good piece of advice for a young collector: Keep an eye out on the art-school scene. Find out where the artists are hanging out, go to those bars and clubs, and get to know them. Really, that's the way in."
What was it like working with Katy Perry?
"That was great fun. Like I said earlier, you can look at pop culture and pop stars as a potential element within the artwork, and that's how I looked at it with Katy. She was someone who I noticed already, in fashion magazines and through her music, as someone who had this kind of style that I wanted to put into my paintings — like a very specific thing. It wasn't just that I want to put a celebrity in a painting — Katy had something that I felt belonged in my work."
Speaking of KP — did you come to her? Did she come to you?
"She actually came to me, which was the beautiful coincidence. She wrote me an e-mail and said she really liked my work, and was wondering actually if some pieces were available. I understood that it was really her, which was kind of hard to believe."
It was a direct email?
"Yeah, she signed it like, 'Katherine Hudson,' so I wasn't entirely sure...I thought, that's kind of familiar. Anyway, I was just so amazed that we were connecting on kind of this visual, cultural level. So, I wrote back and I said, "Would you consider posing for me?" That led to making this painting of her, which led to her using that on the album cover, and then me working on the video. It was really just a fun project."
Did she seem to have an understanding of contemporary art now?
"Yeah, actually she did. We had a few common points of reference, and I felt like she's really serious about it."
Photos, from top: Courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana; Courtesy of Will Cotton.
Dolce & Gabbana is co-hosting this event with you tonight — how interested are you in fashion and how much does that influence what you do?
"It's a funny coincidence; I've been getting more and more into fashion over the last five or six years just because I was talking about it as this narrative element. Within a painting you have setting, and you have the character (the model), and you have the clothing. I think a lot of people never think about how important that is in telling the story that you're trying to tell within a picture.
So, I've started thinking about this, and what I was doing mostly was making my own items of clothing for the models to wear in the painting because I wanted to completely control it. But then New York magazine asked me a few months ago if I would do a fashion piece, which was more of a commentary on specific designers. So, I looked at all the shows, and I can tell you my absolute favorite designer was Dolce & Gabbana for women's clothing... Those basket dresses blew me away, and I wound up remaking one of those baskets out of frosting to put on Elle Fanning for a shoot [pictured above]. But, it really got me aware of what they've been doing, and I think there's nothing wrong with that, artists looking at fashion. I know some designers that look at art a lot. I think it's a very natural dialogue to have. It mostly just requires nobody being afraid of it, and I think there's a lot of fear out there."
If you spend $20,000 on a dress, is that actually considered art? Is fashion considered an art form?
"I don't know the answer to that. There probably isn't a definitive answer. You could say the same thing about any particular piece of art. A lot of the stuff in here — is it art? I'm not sure. Maybe it is. It's a funny kind of task."
Did you find Elle Fanning to be very precocious?
"Yeah, I couldn't believe it. I mean she is a pro. I've worked with a lot of different models, but she was probably the only actress I've ever worked with, and that made her fantastic for me because I kept asking her to embody these scenes. I'd say, 'Okay you're in this place and it's very cold, and everything is made of merengue and sugar snow,' and I feel like she jumped right into that in a way that models might not otherwise. She didn't just have that stock model pose; she really embodied the idea and the scenery."
Did she seem to be aware of all the Hollywood hoopla? The paparazzi-type stuff?
"She walked in and she seemed so innocent and giddy, and then she just transformed into this very professional mode when she put the clothes on, but she was very clearly a young girl at the same time. The Hollywood thing, it never came up in our context, and I'm probably just unaware of it myself."
Photo: Via New York