The LA-based artist uses the visual language of European masterworks to examine themes of gender and status for the 21st century.
Jesse Mockrin loves making what’s old new again. The LA-based painter established herself by reinterpreting European masterworks and reframing them to examine gender and symbols of status. But Mockrin is just as steeped in the digital world of today. Mockrin spoke with Platform about why she first hesitated in making historical references, how she views childhood differently now that she’s a parent and what prompted her to investigate Olivia Rodrigo’s hit song, Driver's License.
What do you think makes a work of art good?
What makes an artwork authentic?
I think artists who make really great work are connected more deeply to something authentic within themselves. It's not so much trying to capitalize on a trend or trying to solve the world's problems as much as being genuine to what you, as an artist, are interested in. You have to intuit your way into that and figure it out.
Is that an ongoing process for you?
Definitely. And the advice to listen to your intuition, it’s like, “Well, which part of my intuition?” The voice that's saying, “Do this,” or the voice that's saying, “Do that.” I think it's a constant struggle, but I feel like I was always really interested in art history, European art history, and my work got to a more interesting and more genuine place when I started allowing myself to work directly from European art historical sources. It was just something that I wouldn't let myself do for a long time. Then I finally tried it and was like, “This is how I see the world and want to make images.”
Was there anything keeping you from tapping into that sooner?
That feeling that it was some kind of appropriation. There's also this academic tradition of oil painting where you copy from the old masters as a way of learning. In the art world, there's this high and low and the academic way is not considered conceptual or as interesting or as authentic. I think all of those things made me feel like that was something sort of forbidden, but things that are forbidden are usually good territory for making art.
Does the way you make art reflect the way you live?
Maybe. There is the way I work in the studio. I have kids at home. I come in here during pretty set hours and it's very routine. No waiting for inspiration to strike. I'm here Monday through Friday working. I would say there's a certain amount of routine or structure. But I don't always know what I'm doing. The path is definitely laid out a little bit at a time. I couldn't tell you, “This is the artwork I'm going to be making five years from now,” because I don't know. But what I make this year will inform what I make next.
Is that kind of routine liberating or limiting?
The idea of playing hooky someday would be nice. I’m getting my second COVID vaccine soon and I was like, “Oh, maybe I could have a sick day.” I was vaguely looking forward to spending the day at home watching Netflix because that is just not something I experience anymore. I've forgotten how awful it feels to actually be sick. A while ago, I took one of my kids out of daycare and we went off and had lunch together long before the pandemic. Those kinds of little adventures that break up the routine are very nice. But mostly I find the routine a requirement. Life is busy.
Do you generally agree with the way people talk or write about your work?
Yes. I feel like I make work and I have a sense of what I'm interested in, but I wouldn't say I'm always the best person to say what the work does in the world. I think in some ways it's nice to have somebody look at it from the outside to answer that question. I have my own ideas, but I'm always really interested in what other people's ideas are and how through writing they connect it to other things I may not have thought about before. I can't remember a time that I read writing about my work and I was like, “That is wrong.”
What do you listen to while you work?
I listen to a lot of podcasts, audio books, and some music and I talk on the phone some. During planning stages, I'm not usually listening to anything. And I do feel like listening to music is a little bit better for the beginning stages of a painting when I want to be a little bit looser and feel my way through it. When it's more mechanical, I can listen to a podcast. It's like the physical act of painting is so separate from language that my brain can do both, which is kind of nice.
What's the music that you listen to?
Recently, I've been listening to Cardi B., Beyonce. Sometimes I listen to Johnny Cash. It's somewhat eclectic. Like I listen to the album Damn. by Kendrick Lamar a lot. There are some albums I listen to over and over again. There was a period of time where I was listening to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet soundtrack from my adolescence over and over.
Speaking of adolescence, is there something you thought you understood when you were younger that's only started to make sense recently?
My perspective on childhood is very different now that I'm a parent. I think as my children get older, I get to remember what I was doing when I was their age and revisit it. The way I feel about them becoming teenagers and young adults is very different from how I felt as a teenager and a young adult. I've heard the human brain isn't really fully mature and formed until you're 25 years old. I definitely did not see that as a 16-year-old, 18-year-old, 23-year-old. I definitely thought I was firing on all cylinders.
Are you superstitious about anything?
Yeah. Sometimes I paint these black backgrounds on the paintings and it's a finicky process. I used to do it one way, now I do it another way, but it took time to figure it out. Basically, I would paint a layer of black and leave for the night. When I came back in the morning, I would be praying that it had dried well. I would come in and not look directly at the painting. I would clean my glasses, and then approach the painting with my eyes down and then look up. I felt like if I glimpsed it from across the room, it would be bad. With the paintings, if it feels like something new, I might not want people to see it until it's fully there. That is more about how people react. If I'm super excited about it, I don't want to hear any reactions until I've made it happen.
Have you gone down any internet rabbit holes lately?
I check the New York Times frequently and Instagram. I definitely have an Instagram problem. And I'm new to TikTok. I'm still trying to figure that one out, but I listen to this podcast called Still Processing. It's two culture writers from the New York Times talking about pop culture. They recently did one talking about the song Driver's License, which is apparently a big hit this year. That was news to me. I tried to go down a TikTok rabbit hole to find the things they were talking about, like Driver's License TikToks.
What motivates you?
I think I'm endlessly fascinated by images: contemporary image culture, images from the past. In my work, I tend to look at things through the lens of gender. I'm interested in how you can see the social constructions of gender changing over time in these images. There's this throughline across history where people have felt the same feelings and ideas and these narratives that recycle through time. I think those things are just really interesting to me. And trying to learn as much as I can about the actual practice of painting.
Do you think your fascination with image culture is related to your fascination with Instagram and TikTok?
Yes. I think the way people perform their identity is always very interesting to me. One of the things I follow now is makeup culture on Instagram. It hasn't come to me in the form of a project yet. I hope at some point it will, but I love the way it relates to painting and is like a form of painting.
When you were starting out, what odd jobs did you have?
One of my first jobs was decorating cookies. There was a moment in the late nineties when it was a thing to get a bouquet of these marzipan cookies on sticks. I think all those businesses have disappeared, but the place was called Bundle of Cookies and you could order a basket of cookies. I would squeeze out the frosting and decorate the cookies to look like a baby or something.