New Welsh Review
Dreams of Detroit
Unfinished Business –
75 30 05, a major exhibition of the work of artist Richard Cox, opened at Newport Museum & Art Gallery this summer, and will be on tour to various venues throughout the rest of 2005 and 2006 (including a run at the Wales Millennium Centre from 26 November). In this piece, which is an abbreviated and edited version of the catalogue essay written by Anne Price-Owen to accompany the exhibition, various aspects of the development of Cox’s art are explored, most particularly the influence of the American Abstract Reductionists Robert Mangold and Ad Reinhardt.
Richard Cox has led a bifurcated life, as both an artist and an Arts Development Officer. As an artist, he is a great advocate of abstract painting who follows in the tradition of the American Abstract Reductionists, Robert Mangold and Ad Reinhardt. He also cites artists such as Piero della Francesca, Vermeer, Caravaggio and Duchamp who have particularly impressed him. For the average viewer, this might seem a contradiction: how does he reconcile these apparently diverse influences in his work? The answer is not simple, even though Cox’s art embraces a much broader range than might at first be expected. On the one hand, he works on large, formal, abstract paintings, and on the other, he produces detailed, highly intricate drawings and prints, some of which derive from an abstract, architectural aesthetic, while others are what he refers to as ‘still lifes’. Perhaps this appears anomalous, but his attitude to the creative urge is the same in all cases. There is a degree of reductionist formalism associated with these very different ways of mark-making which is commensurate with his considered approach to both aspects of his work.
In his other life, Cox is an Arts Development Officer in the broadest sense of the word. He has worked with a variety of arts associations which promote the cause of the practising artist, and has been instrumental in implementing strategies concerning the arts and artists. Many artists, especially those in Wales, the country to which he has dedicated his services for the last thirty years, have been the beneficiaries of his policies. The fact that Cox has contributed much to the advancement of artists is indicative of his altruistic spirit. He has often been unable, for example, to take advantage of the financial awards and grants available to artists owing to his position as an arts administrator.
Following his initial period of training, when he spent the best part of eight years at various art schools obtaining a succession of diplomas and higher degrees, Cox was well prepared for his dual career. Having been associated with institutions where the promotion of the visual arts is paramount, his natural inclination was to offer his expertise to others whose goals were similar to his: to practise the visual arts. But from the outset he was also determined to become a painter himself. He received substantial encouragement by winning a number of awards and also by exhibiting his work: he was still a student at Newport College of Art in 1968 when he exhibited in the Wales Now show, for example. Two years later he won First Prize for Painting at the National Eisteddfod with his contribution to the South Wales Group Exhibition Now. That same year he also hung his first solo show at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (while completing his studies on the MA Fine Art programme). Between 1968 and 1972 he exhibited annually throughout the UK in both group and solo shows, in addition to representing Wales at the International Print Exhibition in Portugal in 1971.
Cox’s ability to organise as well as contribute to exhibitions was established as early as 1968 with his first group exhibition, which included his own paintings. He often gives his shows enigmatic titles, and his first one was no exception: it opened under the name of NTE [No Title Exhibition] (1968-9). A predilection for intriguing word-games would become a recurrent feature of the displays that he organises and to which he contributes. Despite his reluctance to write about his painting – he believes ‘paintings speak louder than words’ – he delights in word-games which encourage the spectator to relinquish his / her passive position in front of the artwork to consider the verbal clues offered by his title. The eponymous Analogue (1999), for example, emerged at a time when personal computers had become commonplace objects in both the home and the workplace. ‘Analogue’ signifies the correspondences between two words or objects whose origins are dissimilar, but it has another meaning, of course, with reference to camera and the visual media, although ‘analogue’ as such has now been superseded by ‘digital’. Ironically, while the public largely accepts the veracity of analogue photography, it is suspicious about digital imaging and the manipulation of the image. The pieces in Analogue all bear the mark of the artist’s own digits, demonstrating Cox’s witty approach to both word and image.
This trait re-emerges in this current exhibition – 75 30 05: Unfinished Business. The message is simple: Cox settled in Wales in 1975, and this collection represents work which spans the last thirty years, during which he has derived much inspiration and support from his adopted country. Although the breadth and diversity of the work on display suggests a retrospective, the title also intimates that this show represents not just a review of past projects, but also an indication of what is to follow: his business in Wales is by no means finished. Moreover, the consistency of the entire exhibition, in which themes and motifs assert themselves in various guises according to the strengths of his subjects of influence and the various processes he has tried and tested, demonstrates that the early work is a blueprint for his subsequent creative endeavours. The business that he started in Wales in 1975 is ongoing, and there is certainly no sign of his work drawing to a close after thirty years.
In fact, 1975 was the year that Cox distinguished himself as an artist who meant business. He won Purchase Prizes for two pieces in the Royal National Eisteddfod’s Earth, Air and Water touring exhibition, and was also awarded bursaries from the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Welsh Arts Council. These enabled him to take a sabbatical in order to focus on his art full-time. This period of concentrated work produced two discrete solo shows in Cardiff: one at Chapter Arts Centre in February 1976, and the other at Oriel, the Welsh Arts Council’s gallery, in the autumn of that year, with the latter show subsequently touring to Southill Park Arts Centre. Both exhibitions featured predominantly abstract work, a form which had intrigued Cox during his formative years at college, and which continues to concern him today.
Cox was fortunate to have been a student in the sixties when our art colleges were leading the global revolution in the visual arts. Post-war rationing and compulsory military service had been phased out, and a renewed optimisim and positive spirit ensued, aided and abetted by the flourishing of Flower Power and anti-war campaigning (Cox has been a member of CND since his schooldays). Britain’s affiliation with America, established during World War II, gained momentum, and the influence of abstract art, especially Abstract Expressionism, filtered through to contemporary British artists who were avidly searching for new and alternative forms of expression. The fact that abstract art engaged with issues concerning the processes of how art was made prompted questions about the dialogue between the art object and its spectator, and the subsequent collaboration between them. This notion of interchange appealed to the sixties generation of painters, who rejected traditional materials and methodologies in favour of alternative found and synthetic ones. Their inventive spirit led them to experiment with their practice, thereby engaging with theories relating to the value of art, art as commodity and non-material art in a materialistic society. These were issues which artists of the time were wrestling with, and Cox was one of these young artists.
Cox felt a particular affinity for the works of the Americans Robert Mangold (b.1937) and Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967). Both artists painted on large canvases, variously using oil, acrylic, and sometimes spray paints and pencil. They sought to depict images which were not intended to represent emotion or movement; they simply wanted the spectator to immerse him / herself in the purity of the colours and shapes – in other words, in the painting itself. Both Mangold and Reinhardt were reductive painters who strove to pare down their art to its ultimate essence. Their work is not gestural, but contemplative, often hard-edged, and the scale suggests a colour field. Accordingly, it is the viewer who creates the movement in the picture by being persuaded to move alongside it, or backwards and forwards in front of it, in order to absorb the image. Only then does the full intensity become clear, where we might see barely perceptible motifs emerge, or the illusion of shapes might beg us to question our own perceptions. By this means we may be persuaded to question the nature of art even further. Cox, too, was determined to immerse the viewer in his art. It is the act of looking which is all-important, rather than the verbal deliberating and analysis which so often accompany abstract art, thus putting the emphasis on discussion as opposed to the seeing.
Where Cox’s work differs from that of the two Americans can be seen in his mark-making. His older ‘mentors’ sought to reduce the evidence of the human hand in their work, whereas Cox always reminds us that his work depends on the skill of the individual artist: his methods of mark-making are his particular language, and are as individual as his voice. He admits that his art is autobiographical, referring as it does to his life and interests, to what he has seen, to the people and events he has encountered and to the places he has visited, be they near or far. Sometimes the references are obvious, especially in his drawings (as in his ‘Jagmandir Series’, for example); at other times they are obscure.
Cox expanded his horizons and his oeuvre in 1978. The exhibition title for the collection of colour prints he produced that year was Californian Landscapes, but of course these are not landscapes in the conventional sense. They are photographic landscapes which he shot during his travels to the USA in 1977 and 1978 with the aid of a grant from the Welsh Arts Council. These gave him the opportunity to see at first hand new work on the West coast, particularly Los Angeles, where colour xerox printing was the new medium. And, in keeping with his diverse interests, he availed himself of the chance to explore his longstanding passion for the American automobile.
The American car, with all its excesses, has since Cox’s schooldays been almost an obsession for an artist whose maxim is, paradoxically in this context, ‘less is more’. His first encounter, in the early sixties, with a ‘1960 Buick Electra, parked near my school … was an unforgettable experience,’ he remembers. Since then, he has made literally hundreds of drawings and prints, taken thousands of photographs and formed a major archive.
Cox regards his cars as still-life objects: his admiration for them lies in their aesthetic appeal and not necessarily their performance, and certainly not in what they symbolize. Unlike Richard Hamilton, who deliberately appropriated images of Chevrolets, Buicks, Cadillacs etc., with his mixed-media works ‘Hommage à Chrysler Corps’ (1957) and the tableau he arranged for the cover of the magazine Living Arts 2 (1963) in order to comment on popular culture and consumerism, Cox ‘seeks to record a phenomenon in a deadpan unemotional way’. The majority of his car studies are made with drawing materials, at times simply in pencil, although conte, charcoal, crayon, and latterly printing techniques also verify his passion for drawing. By 1984 he had substantially enriched his material on cars, which he exhibited in that year under the title Dreams of Detroit (the title was, of course, taken from the seventies slogan ‘Dream Machines’ i.e. cars). Apart from his own drawings, silk-screen prints and colour xerox images of cars, the display included his photographs from the USA, taken on three successive trips made in 1969, 1977 and 1978, when he also collected an assortment of pictures of cars from advertisements and archival photographs from Detroit. The entire show was composed of 137 images, including Cox’s meticulous drawing Buick Portrait (1979). This work exemplifies the diversity of tones and marks which can be achieved by using pencil and ink, where both inanimate and animate subjects are treated equally.
A number of Cox’s Californian Landscapes contributed to his Dreams show, and by comparing these ‘landscapes’ with his subsequent series of ‘Untitled’ construction drawings in pencil and gouache, a progression of ideas emerges. The cut-and-paste techniques used to create the photographs may have influenced the compositions of the Californian Landscapes, even though they originated from the ‘Ramp’ studies of a few years earlier. The monochromatic, multi-toned, hard-edged shapes take advantage of the possibilities of the available array that the drawing materials (pencil, charcoal, conte), have to offer, and the addition of painted panels of pale colour adds a deceptively subtle kudos to the work. These provided a foil for the remaining pieces when they were exhibited with new paintings from 1978.
Many of the new paintings from this period – ‘Green Curtain’, for example – represent a departure from Cox’s previously pure, controlled style, indicating his continuing attempt to give expression to things seen, felt and experienced. He was less concerned at this stage with the calm, intellectual order of his previous works, but it was a preoccupation to which he would nevertheless later return. He subsequently began to use two or three pieces, thus creating diptychs and tryptychs. Given his penchant for dealing with themes and series, and also for creating three-dimensional pieces, or additions, these multi-part pictures were a natural progression for his work to take.
When Cox resigned from his post as Arts Development Officer, he had to dispose of his personal paper mountain. Rather than waste it, he used it as an opportunity to create a series of artworks which would display an important aspect of his life. Containment consists of a number of boxes, each with a side removed, in which to store the documents, video tapes and other material that he had amassed over the years. When stacked in the boxes, the materials comprise a multitude of rectangles, colours and textures – the sort that have shaped Cox’s entire oeuvre.
The most significant working periods for Cox since he left his Arts Council post in 1998 have been the two three-month residencies at Bemis Centre of Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1999 and 2001. The opportunity to work without restrictions or interruptions in a highly supportive and internationally recognized centre was, to quote Cox, ‘the most valuable time I have experienced since first coming to work in Wales at Chapter in 1975 where I worked 6 days a week and did nothing else’. The second visit concluded with a major exhibition of new work which, like his 1981 show at Cardiff University, was financially very successful. He speaks with great affection of those he worked with during that time, especially Ree Schonlau, the inspiring originator and director at Bemis.
As the title of this exhibition clearly states, Richard Cox is engaged in Unfinished Business, maintaining that:
There are never enough hours in the day, and still so
much to do, and I often think by comparison with so
many I could name, how little I have achieved.
Nevertheless, I hope the exhibition in some coherent way
navigates the terrain that has given my life direction
since moving to Wales in the summer of 1975. Then I had
the good fortune to work with the likes of David Briers,
Pete Ellis, Barrie Cook and many others I would never
have known, had I not moved here 30 years ago.
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