Will Cotton’s Elle Fanning Photo Shoot Induces Cultural Sugar Coma

Will Cotton, painter of gimmicky and unironic neo-academic portraits of nude women basking in clouds of baby pink confectionary, shot 14-year old child starlet Elle Fanning in New York Magazine’s Spring Fashion spread. The resulting photographs, which hit stands on February 18th, are both conceptually insipid and ethically precarious.

The spread, which for attribution reasons we cannot reproduce here, includes images of Fanning posing in a frothy Marchesa gown among candy canes and hearts, decorating her body with a pastry bag to create a corset made of icing, eating an ice-cream cone, smearing frosting on her fingers while wearing a dress made out said frosting, and lounging seminude on a bed of cellophane candy wrappers.

“The spring fashion photo spread inside this week’s New York,” the Cut, New York Magainze’s fashion blog, explains, “is full of dresses you could wear or eat. Cotton has been using candy in his artwork ‘as a metaphor for pure pleasure, for something that doesn’t exist for anything but pleasure’ since the late nineties.”

Oddly, the problematic analogy between teenage girls and candy as pleasure-giving objects goes unexamined on “a site for women who want to view the latest fashion trends [and] read provocative takes on issues that matter, from politics to relationships.” But it gets weirder:

“I just felt like she got it,” Cotton says, “I don’t think any of it struck her as ridiculous,” and it was her idea to start eating the Fendi bag made of candy dots. When the shoot was over, she sent a handwritten note thanking Cotton for “a sweet weekend.” And signed off: “Desserts conquer all.”

Even more bizarre is the fact that the shoot (which, by virtue of its inappropriateness, harks back to the elder Fanning’s banned campaign of Marc Jacobs’s “Oh Lola” fragrance) seems to have garnered some institutional validation. The photo credits end with a “special thanks to [Gagosian staffer and Cotton’s girlfriend] Rose Dergan, Angela Conant, and the Rauschenberg Residency–Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.”

It’s no surprise that Cotton — whose portrait of a denuded Katy Perry reclining on a cloud of cotton candy graced the cover of her album “Teenage Dream” — would make formally saccharine and politically reactionary soft-core kitsch. The LA Times’s Leah Ollman summed it up when she called it “commercially slick and sociologically naïve.” But here, Cotton subverts our expectations, making the quantum leap from vacuous misogyny to icky ephebophilia.

Images: Actress Elle Fanning and Producer Will Cotton/Ian Gavan/Getty Images for BFI, Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

- Chloe Wyma