Jesse Mockrin | In mid-stream, 2017 | Oil on linen | 102 x 74 in (259 x 188 cm)
We’re thrilled to announce our upcoming exhibition, “Succession – Solo Exhibition of Jesse Mockrin” at CICA Vancouver! Join us from April 21 to May 28, 2023, to witness the thought-provoking and visually stunning works of Jesse Mockrin, curated by Viahsta Yuan.
We’ll be hosting an opening reception on Thursday, April 20 from 5 – 8 pm. This will be an excellent opportunity to meet the artist, as Jesse Mockrin will be in attendance.
Jesse Mockrin is interested in the fluidity of gender and the imbalance of power through re-envisioning Old Masters’ paintings. Her vivid portraits transform Old Masters subjects into unsettling, contemporary compositions, by cropping scenes or zooming in on body parts from Caravaggios or Vermeers. Mockrin has exhibited at the Biennale de Lyon, Lyon, France; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas, USA; Rubell Family Collection, Miami, Florida, USA; Almine Rech Gallery, Brussels, BE and more.
ESSAY – by Lauren Fournier
Los Angeles-based artist Jesse Mockrin comes to the canon of European art history as a painter, a fan, and a studied observer with a critical eye. These three dynamic positionings give rise to the nuanced take on the historical European artworks she re-appropriates in her contemporary oil paintings. The artist’s work has been shown at key venues internationally, including the Almine Rech Gallery in Brussels and the Biennale de Lyon, but her exhibition at the Center of International Contemporary Art in Vancouver marks the artist’s first solo exhibition in Canada.
When Mockrin was studying painting in graduate school, she found herself a bit surprised by the sheer amount of blood, sex, and violence in European art. What surprised her even more, though, was the ways in which these details feel disregarded in the context of the European and North American museums that display them. When looking at the works of Caravaggio at the Met, or the works of Van Dyck in the National Gallery in DC, the complex carnality within the paintings go overlooked. For whatever reason, the public can be numb to the violence and sex of “old paintings,” focusing instead on the ostensibly timeless form and benign classical references.
In Mockrin’s work, the artist focuses in on those more carnal details, bringing them to the fore for us to reflect upon and discuss. After all, these paintings are historical documents that we can access through public institutions like museums and galleries, which provide us with rich information about how a topic like sexuality, for example, was understood in a given period and place. When it comes to the cultural coding of gender through fashion, for example, how much has changed over the past four or five centuries? By taking historical paintings and directing our focus to certain details, often quite literally through formal strategies like cropping, Mockrin makes space for viewers to consider how much things have changed—or, alternatively, how much things have actually stayed the same.
As the title of this exhibition alludes, the works in Succession share the unifying characteristic that they each contain references to art histories. “As I learned more about oil painting in graduate school, I became interested in the long history of oil painting,” Mockrin explains. Because she works with this medium, Mockrin understands she has in many ways inherited the histories of oil painting too—histories she wrestles with from a place of admiration and critique.
Succession can also be understood as referring to the ways that the works have a serial quality and follow one after another. Seriality has always been important to Mockrin’s work. When preparing for an exhibition, the artist considers how the works function in relation to each other as part of a group, and what is the effect for the viewer as they move from one frame to the next. Mockrin is well-known for her pieces that combine European art historical references with references to contemporary popular culture: her 2020 painting of Billie Eilish done in the style of Caravaggio was featured in Vogue. This exhibition at CICA is unique for bringing works from previous shows together, with all of the works depicting European art historical references in contemporary ways.
Selecting parts of scenes from these Old Masters’ paintings and reframing becomes the artist’s primary way of reimagining the canonical works from her perspective as a white-Jewish American woman artist working in the 2020s. Oftentimes, the cropping and zooming becomes a way for the artist to comment on the distance or lack of distance between these periods of European history—most often the 16th century and the 17th century—and present-day times. How has the mainstream public understanding of desire, sexuality, violence, agency, and empowerment changed, and how much has stayed the same?
In her new body of work, Mockrin focuses in on pre-1800 European paintings and re-frames them, using strategies made possible by cameras and contemporary media technologies, working with editing software and photoshop as she collages images together. Today, we have our own haptic relationship to viewing on our tablets and smart phones: as soon as we come across an image we can readily touch a screen, expecting a more intimate view as our fingers press out.
Mockrin lifts the chiaroscuro lighting of the Old Masters paintings to let a little more light in. With this increase of light comes an increased reflection on the tensions within the original paintings, be they related to violence, sex, or both. Works by Caravaggio, one of Mockrin’s influences, are known for featuring voluptuous bodies in almost orgiastic relation to one another, though often religious or nationality themes suppress what could be another reading of the work. With a more even treatment of lighting comes a more equal accentuation of the figures within the composition: Mockrin wants everything in her paintings to be literally visible and clear.
Another effect of Mockrin’s use of cropping is that it makes the figures in the paintings more androgynous. By focusing in on the parts of the body that aren’t especially gendered, like hands, the artist believes we can get beyond more rigid definitions like male and female. This focus on androgyny comes not only from the contemporary context of 2SLGBTQIA+ communities where people who are non-binary, genderfluid, and 2 Spirit evade binary definitions, but also from the content and stories of the historical paintings that Mockrin is referencing.
In The Kissing Contest (2022), Mockrin references Jacob van Loo’s Amarillis crowning Mirtillo (1650), which depicts a scene from Italian poet and playwright Giovanni Battista Guarini’s 16th-century tragicomedy Il Pastor Fido. The poem and the painting reference an event where a group of women were bored, and decided to have a kissing context to determine who is the best kisser. One of the woman’s male lovers dresses up as a woman and enters the competition, kissing her in disguise: he ends up receiving the award. In Van Dyck’s painting, the only clue that this isn’t actually two women kissing is a boot peeking out from under the male-lover-in-disguise’s dress. In Mockrin’s painting, like other pieces in Succession, the sapphic qualities of the original work is brought out to provide another perspective.
In Mockrin’s work, hands often serve as a stand-in for the figures themselves, as they embody the expressiveness of one’s personality through the way they gesticulate. The emphasis on the hands also brings to mind the importance of touch, which ties into the more prominent theme of intimacy (broadly understood) in Succession. In the paintings we get glimpses of sexuality and intimacy removed from their original contexts and partially de-gendered, including a dagger pressing up against someone’s curvy flesh; ropes caressing a figure’s wrists and fore-arms; and thighs spreading just enough so as to be suggestive. Sometimes the gesturality in Mockrin’s treatment of anatomical details lead to mannerisms that look surreal or bizarre, reminding me of the toes suggestively curling back in Louise Bourgeois’s 1993 bronze sculpture Arch of Hysteria.
Other paintings of Mockrin’s are more explicit, with the passionate grasping of a woman’s breast, which from the cropping is not clear if this is an encounter between more than one person or an auto-erotic act. That this is included in a painting that references the story of Lucretia, which is rife with tensions between suicide and morality, makes it all the more intriguing.
Other paintings portray rituals and gatherings that feel pre-sexual or post-sexual, either on the cusp of something happening or as if something has already happened. Take for example Summon (2018), an oil on linen in which three androgynous figures sit naked together near a fire. Sprawled out, they seem so comfortable with each other as they sit in the nude directly on the earth. The smoke from the fire is set against a matte black background that expands out for most of the space of the painting. In some ways, it is this arcane background of Summon that becomes a point of emphasis, and not the figures in the foreground. These kinds of unusual framing decisions enrich the subtext in Mockrin’s paintings, opening the viewer’s mind.
By taking the scenes and figures portrayed and obscuring them from their original contexts—often related to at least one of three things: mythology, religiosity, and nation-building—Mockrin opens them up to fresh readings. Perhaps there are relationships, intimacies, desires, and even otherworldly or occult events portrayed in the original works that might have gone unrecognized in the Old Masters paintings had attention not been brought to them through thoughtful reframing. Thus is the power of Mockrin’s work in promising new ways of looking.
Lauren Fournier is a writer, curator and artist of settler ancestry currently based in Tkaronto/Toronto. She holds a PhD from York University, where she wrote a multidisciplinary history of “autotheory” as a post-1960s mode of feminist practice that spans conceptual art, literature and art writing. Lauren has given talks on her research internationally, most recently at the American Comparative Literature Association in Los Angeles, the Modern Language Association in New York City, and the Royal College of Art in London, and was invited as the keynote for Concordia University’s art history graduate symposium on empathy/empathies (2021). Lauren’s writing has been published in a number of peer-reviewed journals, art and literary publications, and books, including Environmental Humanities, Contemporary Women’s Writing, CSPA Quarterly (Centre for Sustainable Practices in the Arts), a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, Comparative Media Arts Journal, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, West Coast Line, ESC: English Studies in Canada, Canadian Theatre Review, Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada, The Routledge Companion to Performance Philosophy, and Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art: Health.
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