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Mr Doodle Needs to Open the Artwork World to All

Mr Doodle Needs to Open the Artwork World to All

Midway through a conversation with British artist Sam Cox, better known as Mr Doodle, a paradigm shift takes place when I ask if he considers Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the infamous urinal displayed as an artwork in 1917, and Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – i.e, that shark, chillingly suspended in formaldehyde and big enough to eat you at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 1992, are the two most exciting art moments of the last hundred or so years.

“I really like what you might not think of as typical art by typical artists,” he says in a way that vibrates like a mischievous speech bubble in the Beano or Dandy, iconoclastic titles of the Britain’s comics’ industry. “So, this is not what you might consider fine art, but I would say the invention of Disneyland by Walt Disney is right up there, if not beyond, those two moments. The whole thing is a huge piece of an artwork on such a massive scale. It’s like the world’s biggest painting that’s not a painting.” Now there’s an answer – and pointer we’re about to discover – to the scale and aspiration of Cox’s mantra.

But can he nominate something more conventionally art? “Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can,” he says in the blink of an eye. Warhol was also, of course, a huge Disney devotee. He called Mickey Mouse his favourite actor, Minnie Mouse his favourite actress, and Walt Disney “my own favourite personal hero”. As did Keith Haring, the artist to whom Cox’s work is most often compared: “I always wanted to work for Walt Disney when I was growing up, when I was a kid, and in some ways I think he’s one of the three most important artists of the 20th century, along with Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso.”

You can say and think what you like about 29-year-old Cox, the man who refers to his Doodlings as “graffiti spaghetti” and “doodle virus”, which spread in perpetua across buildings, rooftops, houses, luxury products, retail spaces, Red Bull F1 Racing Cars and more, with the ease and spontaneity of flowers blooming, waves breaking and clouds floating across the sky. He even has his own Doodleland. More than a “doodle virus”, this guy’s a, ahem … global Sam-demic. And there’s a Mr & Mrs Doodle; there’s Doodle Dog; and Doodle Baby.

Sam Cox, aka Mr Doodle
Sam Cox, aka Mr Doodle

All of which are on view at Hong Kong’s Pearl Lam Galleries via the exhibition Mr Doodle in Space, in which Mr & Mrs traverse vast reaches of the “black bespoke” through a series of rooms in the gallery. The show poses the question: “Will Mr & Mrs Doodle make it back to DoodleLand before Mas – aka Dr Scribble, Mr Doodle’s evil twin – completes his mission?” But don’t worry, Mas isn’t all that evil. “He’s one of those classic cartoon villains who try to be angry, but he’s more of a joke of a character, a failure. He tries to look a bit scary, but he’s not really all that threatening,” says Cox. “It was predicated on Super Mario, like the idea of a bad guy who wants to take over the world.”

As opposed to the good guy, Cox, whose mission to take over the aesthetic world began early. Born in 1994, he was barely a teenager when he started covering his parents’ furniture and some of the rooms in their house with his nascent scribbles and scratches. Soon realising the canvas wasn’t big enough to contain his ambitions, he started doodling on the walls of local fast-food restaurants and even schools. And then the lightbulb moment. He walked into a lecture at the University of West England, in Bristol, wearing his hand-doodled attire, only for the professor to jokingly refer to him as Mr Doodle. And Eureka! Man, artist, avatar and brand were born.

London’s Hoxton Gallery staged Cox’s first commercial show, Attention Seeker, in 2015. A year later, he was doodling the interior of a retail store next to London’s Old Street Underground. Soon after, his mesmerising and dense clusters of characters, objects, tchotchkes and patterns started growing and multiplying. Cox, as Mr Doodle, was pioneering the forefront of a new art wave, taking the digital-art community by storm with a massive social media following. And with digital buzz came brand collaborations, all wanting a piece of his young, Gen-Z, and noticeably Asia-centric demographic – via MTV, Puma, Samsung, Red Bull and Fendi.

But where Mr Doodle separates himself from his peers is in his sense of purpose: a deep and obsessive compulsion to expand and share his vision of his DoodleLand. As a form of release or meditation, his process is fluid, therapeutic, unrestrained and without hesitation, as if channelling directly from his world into ours. “My intention has always been to create a universal doodle language that can relate to and attract people from all over the world,” he says as matter-of-factly as his viral doodles spread.

Cox with his wife Alena
Cox with his wife Alena

In that way, Mr Doodle is to art as Google is to search; bottomless, apparently infinite. Except that Google doesn’t make you smile. Cox – and his work – can, and does, but with that comes conflicting opinion from art’s cognoscenti. Which was a lot like reaction to Disney.

Walt Disney’s crime was to achieve commercial success with art and Mickey Mouse’s worldwide recognition as a mere cartoon character outweighed any sense of his creator’s higher-brow significance and influence. He was the anti-art symbol. And in the pantheon of fine art, classical and Old Master-art, Disney’s mass-market laugh-o-grams belonged in the depths of art’s lowerarchy. Which is where many in art’s ivory towers think Cox’s work belongs.

How does he feel about the poo-poohing of his work as some overly commercial viral wallpaper? In answering, he first invokes Haring. “When I watch Keith Haring’s process, when I see how he paints without hesitation and it just flows, that really relates to me,” he says. “But I tend to go for the happiest things I can think of – and, to be honest, I have such a good time when I’m drawing … I just like this idea that people can smile or join in this world. And that’s the Warhol soup-can effect. He took an everyday familiar object and said, ‘Let’s celebrate it’. And in a sense, I suppose that spirit flows through my work.”

I remind Cox that “conflict” is a key part of visual and written narrative and that his work is seemingly bereft of it, hence he gives art’s ivory tower nothing to get hold of – and, contrarily, plenty to lampoon. His land of shiny, happy smiley neo-Kawaii simply isn’t subversive enough or subliminally dark like Haring, or latterly dark in the less favourable ways in which contemporary times have judged some of Disney’s output. Or redolent of the stand-up comedian in public who’s a manic depressive in private. Where’s your conflict, Mr Cox, and Mr Doodle? “There’s no real harm in this world I create,” he retorts, “and there’s no real alarm in this world either. There’s not really any underlying theme. It’s just a kind of sunshine.”

And that warmth’s been spreading through auction houses in Asia like wildfire. A show in Seoul in 2018 called Doodle World at Ara Art Centre first provoked collector awareness. And proof. too, that Cox did more than just doodle walls. He could be more grown up. He depicted global tourist landmarks, world leaders and artworks such as the Mona Lisa and The Scream, though all comprised of his wavy visual semantics. The following year Sotheby’s hosted Mr Doodle Invades, featuring 52 of his works, many again appropriations of famous works. The Girl with a Doodle Earring was a standout piece. And iterations of Hello Kitty as Pink Kitty, Blue Kitty and Orange Kitty were all snapped up. “I took the theme of visual looks of famous artworks and reimagined them through my doodle lens. I tried to represent particular images or ideas, sometimes in an obvious way and other times in an abstract way, but always through my fun characters,” says Cox.

So what about his art so resonates with Chinese and Japanese collectors and aesthetes? “When I travel to Asia, or China and Japan, I see how cartoon characters seem more integrated in things like packaging and in shops and the culture generally. And that just makes it more appealing. And they tend to like characters with big eyes and cute-looking visuals. So, I don’t know why it happens, but I’m happy about it. I love being over there and working in that environment.”

What may connect the Chinese and Japanese markets to Mr Doodle is subliminal. And again, Disney-esque. Japanese super flat artist Takashi Murakami acknowledges a debt to characters like Mickey Mouse in realising his Mr DOB hybrid cartoon character in 1996, which subsequently showed up on Louis Vuitton accessories. The mouse is also a favourite subject of Korean artist Lee Dongi, creator of Atomaus, a commingling of Japanese character Atom and Disney’s mouse. “When I was growing up, Atom and Mickey Mouse were always near me,” says Lee. “They were ubiquitous and part of my life.” And the Mickey black-ears hat is as ubiquitous as McDonald’s golden arches. Thus, by extension, Mr Doodle feels like an outgrowth and outpouring of such.

“Delving into the world of iconic imagery is fun,” he says. “I like a balance; I work from reference and sometimes from my head and mix a bit of both. It’s great to see the world as a giant Doodleable canvas,” he enthuses. Or 21st-century Disneyland I tell him.

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Installation view at Pearl Lam Galleries
Installation view at Pearl Lam Galleries

Pearl Lam has a wonderful Mr Doodle commission of the Shanghai skyline in one of her residences. “The Shanghai doodle Pearl has is a nice way of combining elements in a work, because you create something that people can recognise and then they look closer into it, and they can feel things I’ve invented in the work,” Cox says. “It’s the same principle with the way I take London Bridge or draw into the face of the Queen. People see an image, then appreciate the drawing within, and it’s a kind of gateway into DoodleLand.” As such, it’s an unlimited ability. The drawing can just flow over any object or icon, wrap itself around anything and it roughly seems to work.

Street artist and East London-based SHEM, who’s known Cox for eight years, thinks he’s simply born to doodle. “I love Sam’s work ethic and his dedication to his art; he’s so authentically himself and constantly expanding his doodle world.” And though Cox is famous and recognisable, SHEM says, “if no one saw, liked or commented on Sam’s work he’d still be doing it every day. He lives and breathes his art in every possible way. It’s all-consuming, just like his doodles. And I love the kind, humble person he is.”

And yet, while private galleries have tended to eschew him, his success on the auction circuit, on the wave of types likes KAWS and Philip Colbert (he of the lobster and lobster suits), is no doubt a subliminal factor in the rise of auction-houses in Asia acting less like galleries and more like retail spaces. If a Sotheby’s or a Christie’s or a Bonhams opens a pop-up space in Shanghai, Chengdu or Seoul anytime soon (which surely must happen at some point in 2024), you can bet that Cox will doodle his way in, and even doodle the space. Or go full-on matchy matchy – think Fendi Doodle baguette clutch, in a doodled space, next to a Hermès Birkin. Or why not Doodle a massive Hello Kitty piece for an equally massive KAWS Companion piece to chaperone? Or Doodle Google; not just the letters but the entire search engine. And lord knows what AI might have up its utopian/dystopian doodlerithmic sleeve.

When I put it to Cox that his brand is already an all-singing, all-dancing cartoon strip, Amazon animation series and Netflix film, it’s almost as though he’s shocked by the limited aspiration for his future. “Yes. But, I’m also seeing a bigger picture [he sounds Disneyesque again] about what I’ll be doing in 20 years’ time. I haven’t written anything down in black and white, but I have plans.” Yikes. Quantum Doodle; pre-Big Bang doodle?

Sam Cox is expanding his  doodle world
Sam Cox is expanding his
doodle world

He’s certainly got plenty on his more present plate to be considering. “I know my commitments up to early 2026 in terms of work and shows,” he says. And he shares news, though with no great fanfare, of a forthcoming London museum show in 2024, his first in the capital since his 2015 debut in Hoxton, but won’t be drawn on which institution.

He’s doodled over Fendi headquarters in Rome, he’s doodled on the brand’s luxury shoes and bags, he’s doodled his own house, and he created Doodle Bull for Red Bull, a one-off livery on the RB14, a car that won four F1 races and was the team’s first to race with the now ubiquitous halo. Signed by three-time F1World Champion Max Verstappen and fellow driver Sergio Perez, the car sold at auction in February 2023 through Christie’s for £220,000, of which 65 percent of proceeds went to Red Bull’s charity Wings for Life.

There’s no conflict in Cox’s work. There’s no dark driving force beneath that “doodle-peutic” smileyness? Much like Disney, he’s an enlightened entertainer. “I think … in a way, I’m interested in opening up the art world so that more people can become a part of it. Some people may not realise that they could even like art. So, it’s more of an achievement if you make someone interested in art.” How Doodletopian. 

Source: Prestige Online

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