An American artist based in Beijing, Ain Cocke‘s florid yet ‘historical’ portraits of soldiers from the World War I and II eras intentionally capture the nature of masculinity and the intimacy among men in the context of military and war.
Beautiful to look at as they are, Cocke claims the portraits are his investigations into what it means to be human.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you grew up.
When I was very young I went to Israel with my mother and stepfather, who were doing work on archaeological digs, and my earliest memories began there. This is also where my first fond memories of men with machine guns were born, because of the constant military presence around us.
Since there was a bit of the “terrorism ” going on at the time I had to leave ahead of my parents due to the heightened risks. Incidentally the next plane out after us was highjacked. On fleeing the violence and landing in Cyprus to meet my grandparents, I remember being greeted by a statue of Priapos, the greek god of sexual desire. The statue had an extremely large organ and I made a loud proclamation about my discovery to the giggles of tourists and the embarrassment of my grandparents. Sexuality and violence to me were curious, intriguing, beautiful and related.
While I was living in Los Angeles I developed a fascination with the G.I. Joe, the military, war and the television reruns of old Hollywood musicals.
What was your perception of the male identity when you were growing up? Has this idea changed over time?
I never really had any direct male role models or heroes when I was young, so the male identity was kind of a nebulous idea. I had to take my cues from other children, which could be awkward, as I never really knew how to act on my own. I watched a lot of movies for answers when I was young, and I still do now.
As I have become older I still think the male identity is malleable, there are of course many historical precedents as to how to behave as a ‘man’, and there are probably also genetic factors, but we can still make our own decisions. Over time my perceptions have evolved. I have developed an intellect that is better equipped to analyze my perceptions.
Are these paintings romanticized portraits of masculinity and power?
On one level the paintings I make can be seen as cultural portraits about who and where we are as humans. How we want so badly to believe we are beyond or going beyond violence but in actuality force is still the dominate vehicle of change and containment. These portraits are about power and how it is extended, romanticized, glorified and desired. As well they are an intensely personal investigations into what it means to be human for me; they are kind of questions or searchings for a way to make a self-portrait or become my own hero.
A man in an expression of masculinity is often beautiful whether we want to like it or not.
Most of your paintings and drawings have rather florid and decorative backgrounds, is it intended as a contrast to the masculinity you want to portray?
Certainly on a first impression they appear as a contrast, but maybe on closer inspection they are the reality. A man in an expression of masculinity is often beautiful whether we want to like it or not. And besides, lets face it, the military is ‘the church of man love’, and I don’t mean sexually, although I’m sure that exists. I try not to editorialize the paintings too much, I think they speak for themselves.
Have you drawn any inspiration in terms of narrative and style from films set in the World War I and II eras?
Yes; when I was between the age of 8 and 16, I loved watching films from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. The cinematic quality that exists in some of the paintings comes directly from there; however not so much the fighting type of films, although I did like those too, I much preferred the films that provided entertainment and distraction during times of war. Maybe our distractions say more about us as people than the reality of what is happening.
Besides the figures from the old photographs you collect, do you use yourself or those around you as models?
Only in the way that the accumulation of my knowledge about the human form comes from observation of those around me, not to mention countless years of schooling. Some of the photographs I use for paintings are really not very good in quality, so in a way the finished pieces become portraits of myself and those around me just as much as the actual person in the photo.
You are based in Beijing. How long have you been living in the Chinese capital?
I’ve been living in Beijing for 3 or 4 years. I first came to China in 2006 and eventually just stayed. It is as fascinating as it is maddening, a bit like the Wild West, essentially lawless. The expressions of masculinity are quite different here, there appears to be much less machismo, but on a closer inspection it is there, it just takes a different form than the West.
What made you decide to move to Beijing, and has the city influenced your creation of work at all?
I came here in 2006 to do a project with another artist: I just found it fresh here. There is a kind of freedom of space here to make things I may not make back in the States. My next show will have many different kinds of sculptures in it as well as paintings. I wouldn’t say there are direct Chinese influences in the work. For me, it’s more about the possibilities that working here opens up.
Have you done any research about China during that period of time and have you thought about making work based upon Chinese male relationships during the era of and between the two World Wars?
Yes, I have done some research into that specific subject. I have also collected many photos from that time and shortly after. I have thought about painting them but I am hesitant; it makes more sense to me at the moment to focus on American soldiers. I’m now in the process of creating a series of very high-resolution photo portraits of contemporary young Chinese military men, which is a bit of a departure from the older photographs. I say in the process because it is very difficult to get into the right situation where I can take those photographs, it is not ok to photograph the military in China, especially if you are a foreigner. So the process may be the more interesting part of the project.
This story originally appeared in the Art Issue of OutThere Magazine.