What Mr Doodle Tells Us About Asian Art Market Appetites

Installation view of “DoodleWorld” at Ara Art Center, Seoul, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Installation view of “DoodleWorld” at Ara Art Center, Seoul, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Installation view of “Mr Doodle Invades Sotheby’s” at Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery, Hong Kong, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Mr Doodle, Caravan Chaos, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
[Left to right] From the new Pop Heart Collection of limited-edition screenprints, 60 x 60 cm: Pop Heart – Flower Warmth, 2021; Pop Heart – Puppy Love, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Mr Doodle, Pyramid Climb, acrylic paint on canvas roll, 170 x 120 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Mr Doodle. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
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With all the hype about the Asian art market and its growing base of young art collectors, there is increasing global interest in what appeals to this part of the art world. The answers could possibly lie in the phenomenon that is Mr Doodle (aka the Doodle Man).

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

Otherwise known as Sam Cox, the millennial British artist had “never graced the wall of a New York gallery, blue chip art fair booth, or major Western museum programme” before May 2021. Yet, in the Asian art world, the artist and his infinitely sprawling black squiggles featuring a whole host of anthropomorphic creatures and objects with little satirical social commentary, have been familiar since around 2015 with interest peaking from 2018 onwards.

 

Installation view of “DoodleWorld” at Ara Art Center, Seoul, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Installation view of “DoodleWorld” at Ara Art Center, Seoul, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

 

That year, in July, the artist had a solo show titled “Doodle World” at the Ara Art Center in Seoul, displaying canvases filled with international tourist sites, world leaders and instantly recognisable art such as the Mona Lisa, visually captured through his characteristic “graffiti spaghetti”. There was also a Samsung branded activation. According to Cox, it was this show that incited interest in collectors regarding his art.

During December of the following year, a solo selling exhibition titled “Mr Doodle Invades” at Sotheby’s Hong Kong was completely sold out, at prices ranging from US$6,400 to US$25,640 per piece. The 52 new artworks cheekily took on historically recognised masterworks with titles such as Starry Doodle, Doodle Gothic, and The Doodle Girls of Avignon. The sale was also promoted with a “live doodling event” in the city.

Then the pandemic hit and August 2020 saw Cox’s black inked doodles against an incandescent green background titled Spring (2019) sell for almost US$1 million at the Tokyo Chuo Auction. Over the course of the year, 158 Mr Doodle works were sold at public auction, with sales amounting to almost US$4.7 million. He is even ranked the year’s fifth biggest auction success under 40 by Artnet.

 

Installation view of “Mr Doodle Invades Sotheby’s” at Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery, Hong Kong, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
Mr Doodle, Caravan Chaos, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

 

This year in May, Christie’s jumped on the bandwagon with a dedicated auction of Doodle Man’s works, “Caravan Chaos”. Comprising one or more of the panels from a trailer he covered with cartoon illustrations in 2015, the 27 lots brought in sales close to US$720,000, excluding buyer’s premium.

That same month, two of Mr Doodle’s artworks made an appearance at Pearl Lam Galleries’ booth at Art Basel Hong Kong, following the announcement in April that the gallery would have worldwide representation of the artist. On 14 August, Pearl Lam Galleries is released Limited Edition Colour Prints and Collector Box Editions of his new Pop Heart collection, featuring heart shaped doodles in nine different colours, inspired by his wife Mrs Doodle.

 

[Left to right] From the new Pop Heart Collection of limited-edition screenprints, 60 x 60 cm: Pop Heart – Flower Warmth, 2021; Pop Heart – Puppy Love, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Cox has also collaborated with fashion label Fendi, sportswear giant Puma, MTV Europe Music Awards and created a major mural at Wembley Park.

Much is made about the parallels in Cox’s rise with other international art market favourites such as Takashi Murakami and KAWS who made it big in Asia and are known for their similarly adorable, pop-centric visuals. His gallerist Lam attributed Doodle Man’s appeal in the region to “Asia’s strong figurine culture and obsession with cuteness”.

However, equally crucial to the artist’s rise is his highly social media savvy approach. Cox’s Instagram followers number at 2.7 million, beating at least one major museum in New York and even exceeding the likes of Damien Hirst.

It seems most of the Western art world, top heavy with blue chip names, takes for granted that its decades of institutional presence and market influence will translate into a strong social media presence, the kind that gets the interest of digital savvy collectors and dealers in Asia making connections and closing sales on Instagram, WeChat and its ilk. But increasingly, artists like Cox do not make this mistake and slip past the gatekeepers overseeing the socially acceptable path to art world acclaim with ease.

Banking on the oddly satisfying sense of watching a Mr Doodle sketch unfold in real time, all sorts of ridiculous monsters flowing from the artist’s pen with incredible ease, Cox “often conceives of projects in terms of how they’ll look on video.” His videos performing “inconceivable feats of artistic endurance” such as doodling nonstop for 50 hours all over a London shop in 2017 are very popular online.

 

Mr Doodle, Pyramid Climb, acrylic paint on canvas roll, 170 x 120 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

 

But perhaps what makes his art most noticeable and resonant is its immersive world building, even if it is inherently meaningless and all about a visually happy artistic language. While studying illustration at university, Cox came up with his Mr Doodle persona. Since then, he began creating a cartoonish fictional universe related to the character, including videos detailing Mr Doodle’s mission to draw all over the planet and how his enemies, The Anti-Doodle Squad and Dr Scribble, got in his way.

In a rather dark twist, the line between the artist Cox and his alias Doodle Man is so thin, last year the artist suffered a psychotic episode due to stress when he became completely immersed in the character and was in the hospital for six weeks. But even in healthier times, Mr Doodle’s world is a highly immersive and alluring one, with the artist telling Financial Times in May this year that his ultimate project would be “to be sent out to the Moon and just be allowed to doodle over the whole thing”.

The blurred lines between fantasy and reality offer a kind of primordial out-of-body escapism that hooks people, especially in times of uncertainty, heightened materiality and rapid advancement. While this is pretty much appealing on a universal level, perhaps it caught on quicker in certain parts of Asia because there is a willingness to look past historically entrenched Western expectations and respond reflexively to the moment.

 

Mr Doodle. Image courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

 

 

 
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