Jesse Mockrin - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “I am so heavily invested in the depiction of the human figure, and in how the construction of gender codes change over time, that I end up looking to art history as the place to see human history made visible.”
    —Jesse Mockrin


    Highly theatrical and immediately arresting, A Cymbal Crashed and Roaring Horns is a dramatic and expressive diptych, animated by grappling hands and the writhing contortions of the central figure. Luminous flesh stands in stark contrast against the deep black ground, while undulating folds of richly rendered fabric billow across both panels. The disjunction between the two panels lends itself to a sense of violent interruption, disrupting the visual and narrative flow from right to left and amplifying the composition’s more discordant visual and thematic elements. 


    The painterly rendering of the work and bold chiaroscuro is reminiscent of Baroque paintings, yet the bodily distortion, androgynous figure and narrative disruption is a trademark of American artist Jesse Mockrin. Educated at Barnard College, New York, and University of California, San Diego, Mockrin’s figurative paintings are strikingly contemporary, and yet demonstrate a deep dialogue with art historical sources. Fascinated by the human spirit, the body, and gender politics, she explores these themes and more contemporary conversations around them within the familiar framework of Baroque and Rococo painting. The result are works that transforms traditional imagery into dark, cerebral pieces that seek to defy stereotypes and explore what it means to be human. 


    Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, c. 1610, Schönborn Collection, Pommersfelden

    The title of the work, A Cymbal Crashed and Roaring Horns, is taken from the poem Peter Quince at the Clavier by Wallace Stevens. First published in 1915, the poem is a retelling of the Old Testament story of Susanna and the Elders, a popular subject within the Western artistic canon, and most famously depicted by Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. In the traditional telling of the story, a married woman, Susanna, goes out to bathe one day, unaware that she is being secretly watched by two older men who, upon being discovered, demand sexual favours from her. Her refusal to comply with their demands and their continued attempts to blackmail and coerce her propels the drama into distressing and violent territory, vividly captured in Gentileschi’s 1610 revision of the theme. The artist’s earliest known work, Susanna and the Elders, is powerfully expressive of the violation felt by Susanna from the unwanted advances of the Elders; they loom over her, emphasising both their physical strength over the young girl, and their power as well-respected men to destroy her reputation through false accusations of adultery, a crime then punishable by death. The brilliant white of Susanna’s cloth - a traditional symbol of purity - is replicated here by Mockrin, although in amplifying the sinister drama of the piece we see it being torn away by an unknown hand. 


    As Philomena Epps has noted, Mockrin’s ‘surreal and disquieting’ compositions often give special attention to one particular body part, here the multiplication of clawing hands pulling at the central subject’s clothes and body speaks powerfully to Mockrin’s reclamation of a story of female humiliation and suffering. As the artist explains, ‘I’m always drawn to hands […] There’s still something about the way the hands are the actors in the paintings that I think is really interesting’.i In this respect, the emotive force at the heart of the story of Susanna and the Elders seems especially well-suited to Mockrin’s visual language, where subjects are typically ‘fragmented or cropped as if captured on the cusp of the painting’s borders or deliberately concealing themselves from the viewer.’ii Whilst the visual narrative is disrupted across the two panels here, the emotional storytelling is fluid, and reflects both the lust, anger and fear present in the original tale of Susanna and the Elders.


    [Left] Detail of the present work
    [Right] John Currin, Thanksgiving, 2003, Tate, London. Image: © Tate, Artwork: © John Currin

    The distortion of the hands surrounding Susanna is also reflected in her elongated neck. With Mockrin’s sophisticated knowledge of art history, this is certainly a reference to Italian Mannerist painter Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, which has long since been an iconic example of dynamism through bodily exaggeration. Many artists in the 20th and 21st centuries, like Maria Lassnig and Christina Quarles, have used malleable figures to create more expressive scenes. In this way Mockrin’s formation of the body is akin to that of fellow contemporary American painter John Currin, who is well-known for enlarging, elongating and bending his subjects into eerie distortions of themselves.  In Thanksgiving, a similarly Mannerist-inspired work, the long, strained necks of the left and middle figures add a surreal uneasiness to a familiar scene, hinting at a darker narrative beneath the sublime painterly surface of the canvas. Mockrin, in a similar vein, speaks of her ‘idealisation in the grotesque’: ‘this idea of the elegance of the gesture becomes grotesque when it’s exaggerated to a certain degree’.iii


    Jesse Mockrin’s contemporary fusion of the old and new has made her a rising star in the art market. Her work demonstrates a fresh revival of the tradition of oil painting, and her sharp eye for composition disrupts and creates narrative paths. Mockrin’s exploration of gender and sexuality is manifested in the physicality of her subjects, both in their androgyny and distorted figures. 


    Collector’s Digest 


    • Based in Los Angeles, Jesse Mockrin is represented by Night Gallery and has held international solo exhibitions in Italy, New York, Los Angeles and Seoul. 


    • Examples of her work are held in the collections of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Rubell Family Collection. 


    • Most recently the artist has been the focus of solo exhibitions in New York, Vancouver, and Los Angeles with Night Gallery.


    i Jesse Mockrin, quoted in Shaquille Heath, ‘Jesse Mockrin: A Tragedy in Two Parts’, JUXTAPOZ, 3 April 2023, online.

    ii  Philomena Epps, ‘Jesse Mockrin’, Prime: Art’s Next Generation, London, 2022. 

    iii Jesse Mockrin, quoted in Shaquille Heath, ‘Jesse Mockrin: A Tragedy in Two Parts’, JUXTAPOZ, 3 April, 2023, online.

    • Provenance

      Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Kohn Gallery, Engender, 11 September 2017-27 January 2018

    • Literature

      Adam Lehrer, ‘“Engender” at Kohn Gallery: 8 artists on how gender functions in their work’, Untitled, 7 November 2017 (illustrated, online)


A Cymbal Crashed and Roaring Horns

signed and dated 'J Mockrin 2017' on the reverse of the right part
oil on linen, diptych
each 132 x 92 cm (51 7/8 x 36 1/4 in.)
overall 132 x 184 cm (51 7/8 x 72 1/2 in.)

Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

£60,000 - 80,000 

Sold for £120,650

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2024