Sam Cockrell

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Artist Statement

For the past several years I have been exploring the relationship between people and animals, specifically how humans use animals to convey complex spiritual, emotional, and especially political connections and metaphors. There is poetry in the distance we place between ourselves and nature. Thomas Hobbes argued in his 17th century book Leviathan that paleolithic people created the political state to lift themselves from a state of nature, where power comes from primal strength; society is invisible and imaginary. I make art to disrupt, or at least engage, these webs of power, digital and otherwise, that encompass the globe. My specific interest in animals lies not simply with a personal fondness, but in their ability to convey complex societal and geopolitical metaphors: the black panther, the bear vs bull market, the sacrificial lamb, the birds and the bees.

In January of 2016, presidential hopeful Donald Trump, in his stump speeches, donned a pair of dark-rimmed eyeglasses and in a booming timbre appropriated a soulful 1963 lyrical poem titled “The Snake,” an allegorical tale of a woman nurturing a snake back to health only to be bitten in return. Meant to illustrate the potential danger of providing American asylum to Syrian refugees, “The Snake” was a politicized re-telling of Aesop’s fable, “The Farmer and the Viper,” first uttered by Grecian slaves  twenty-five hundred years ago to provide hope for the masses. This shift of meaning, reduction of concept and animal form to a subjectively ambiguous state, sits at the very core of my work.

Since September 17, 2011, the date marking the beginning of the Occupy movement here in New York City, tensions between different groups in this country have become painfully visible. Prophetically, the truths of inequality are being revealed. The current Presidential campaign cycle has highlighted the wide gap between the American people and their would-be leaders, the widespread digital documentation of police brutality against people of color has fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, and the horrors of the worldwide refugee crisis trigger a  pervasive, nationalistic dread of the unknown.

Animal symbolism traces a golden thread throughout geography and culture, connecting the earliest cave paintings to Darwin’s Galapagos and to the contemporary mass death of west-coast starfish. Through painting, these powerful associations can antagonize present-day tensions. For example, my current body of work explores the loaded iconography of the “Don’t Tread On Me” snake, its visage displayed proudly across the rural landscape. An icon of Americanized rebellion turned libertarian mantra, my interest in this flag’s imagery stems from its symbolism: snakes bite back. Acting as a cultural barometer, the serpent’s pertinence rises and falls. We resonate with the mantra of the snake. There are so many being tread upon.

In recognition of these shared cultural experiences, where animals and humans react to their common political circumstances, I spray paint, onto objects and surface, building up layers of ideological tautness. Physical distance is key, both to the viewer’s relationship to my work and in the space it takes to forget something far away is real. Humor is absolutely necessary in these pictures, engaging the viewer in difficult depth through initial topicality. I build up surfaces with a toolkit of style; abstraction, trompe l’oeil, cartoons are all formally different, yet engage the work independently, each bringing its own set of historical implications, pictorial depth, and conflict.

The spider spins its web from branch to post to outcrop. An observer can see the points of contact or shift focus to the overall filigree. Still further, shifts of focus can recognize the symbolism of the death trap, which – although beautiful – will bring to end the flittings of a moth.



MFA, Columbia University, New York, NY
BFA, Two-Dimensional Arts, Concentration in Painting, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN


Group Exhibition, Ortega 100, Ortega y Gasset Projects, Brooklyn, NY
Group Exhibition, #mycasualacquaintance, LAUNCH F18, New York, NY
Group Exhibition, Interface, FJORD space, Philadelphia, PA
Group Exhibition, Floating Point, Judith Charles Gallery, New York, NY
Group Exhibition, MFA Thesis Exhibition, Fisher Landau Center for Art, Long Island City, NY
Group Exhibition, OUTLET, Postcrypt Art Gallery, New York, NY
Group Exhibition, First Year MFA Exhibition, Wallach Gallery, New York, NY
Group Exhibition, Networking Tips for Shy People, 200 Livingston Street, Brooklyn, NY
Two-Person Exhibition, Hook, Fluorescent Gallery, Knoxville, TN
Group Exhibition, 2013 Honors Exhibition, Ewing Gallery, Knoxville, TN
Solo Exhibition, Shift, Gallery 1010, Knoxville, TN


Wassaic Artist Residency (Upcoming)