Cedric Cox and the New Cubism
– Maxwell Redder
Few artists in Cincinnati have emerged so quickly and ubiquitously as Cedric Michael Cox. A 1999 Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate from the University of Cincinnati’s Design, Architecture, Art and Planning Program, he has in the last four years landed four solo exhibits at top exhibition venues in the city: The Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center, Contemporary Arts Center, The Weston Gallery, and most recently PAC Gallery.
We met at Cox’s studio in downtown’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood to discuss the PAC show, Siegfried’s Sonata, which ran November 9 through December 8. PAC has now, unfortunately, closed. We also discussed a group exhibit at Harvest Gallery called Arrival, which opened December 7. Siegfried’s Sonata seemed to me to be like an intricately threaded quilt. Works were hung so that colors skipped into each other from painting to painting, like dancers. In a space away from the paintings, between the impressive storefront windows, three large, graphite-on-paper sketches were shown, the beginning processes of completed works. This thoughtful installation also allowed viewers to take a break from the high energy of the paintings. They are musical, indeed. The exhibition’s title comes from Siegfried’s Funeral March by Richard Wagner, a work Cox became interested in because the composition begins and ends one of his favorite movies, Excalibur.
Cox is both a modern and postmodern artist, as he cleverly works back and forth between the various tropes of both parts of the century, the old new and the new new. It’s been a long time since a contemporary artist has looked back to Cubism for inspiration, but that’s what Cox does, and to interesting affect; his background palette veers between rose and blues in some paintings, exactly paralleling early Picasso with his Rose and Blue periods which slightly precede his forays into Cubism. He appropriates from the Cubist greats to deconstruct forms and the language of formalism and postmodernism to create a hybrid of old and new.
The words that come to my mind when looking at Cox’s work are ‘jazzy’ and ‘architectonic’, the latter usually associated with earlier works. The rhythms and syncopations of jazz run up and down through his compositions. We virtually feel these rhythms in our bodies as we look at Cox’s paintings. The Jazz Age in America coincides with the same early optimism of Stuart Davis’ paintings, such as The Brooklyn Bridge, and some aspects of French Cubism: all these early references do, however, resonate with hope and the sense of a new era dawning. Cedric Cox has captured this optimism, this sense of capturing the essence of urban or natural forms, and he brings them back through his paintings the same way architects, historical preservationists, and landscape architects do with cities: Cox’s paintings feel like elaborate blueprints for an optimistic urban future, and that optimism, combined with his superior skills as draughtsman and colorist, puts Cox in that rare category of the artist looking outwards, connecting people and art and the urban core through his work. Cedric Cox knows his art and he knows his craft, and his paintings are like gifts to the rest of us when we are feeling down and low and blue.
The least realized painting in Siegfried’s Sonata, Josiah’s Hilltop, was also the largest. Cool-colored pastel shapes clash with a fiery horizon line while sharp shapes push into the painting’s foreground. These sharply defined forefront figures don’t meld into the less defined pastel shapes. The effect is like a stain on a white suit. This clash abruptly stops flow and creates an awkward nakedness in the background; the painting looks unfinished. However, if the foreground and background were pulled apart and slapped onto separate canvases, both would be quite appealing.
Cox’s work has an architectonic, totemic feel to it; his compositions are designed, rather than laid out, and he nearly borrows the design of great Modernist works such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avigonon and then invents his own curvilinear forms, which like the Cubists, often seem to mimic parts of musical instruments. The curvilinear forms also seem to be borrowed from both European Art Nuevo and American Art Deco. He introduces linear forms in the backgrounds of his paintings by mirroring musical scrolls or film reels, at times hints of musical notes dance through the paintings. Semiotics is a major component of Cox’s work. The symbols in his paintings are probably the most important aspect of Cox’s work.
Cox is at his most clever and most creative when he sees the skeleton behind the Cubist greats, and then, like the Abstract Expressionists, adds a skein of his own colors, forms, geometry and the like as the surface elements of his paintings. Sometimes he goes so far as to take the idea of the organic, a very twentieth century concept: think Klee, Miro, Braque, and after reinterpreting the doodles and color from others’ organic meanderings, literally has flowers and gardens growing out of his own organic shapes. This is a clever and intelligent use of the organic, one of those art words which often makes little sense to the outsider. Cox just takes the idea one literal step further and shows us, in his paintings, what the word organic can mean.
The most successful paintings in Siegfried’s Sonata, are Sounds at Dawn on the Horizon, and, Soul With Structure. Similar to the way Futurist painters could capture a simple moment by slowing the margins of motion, Sounds at Dawn on the Horizon captures a chaotic second. Imagine capturing a picture of an intricate stained-glass window shattering as the sun travels through the glass shards; it would be beautiful, the movement would be similar to visually expressing jazz music. The push and pull of space are seamless. It is a wonderful example of his use of organic. Soul With Structure, is the most architectonic painting in Siegfried’s Sonata and was hung brilliantly next to Diamondite Trust, whose heavily saturated purple hues in the lower left section of the painting made the perfect segue between the two.
Works in Siegfried’s Sonata are doused in a sense of atmosphere. Sharp shapes, which Cox describes as “anatomically inspired configurations,” push forward out of near mystical spaces. An additional influence from the movie Excalibur comes from Director John Boorman’s use of glowing green lights against luscious greens of landscape to create illumination, much as George Inness often did in his paintings. Cox mimics these illusions quite successfully. Some spots in the background seem blotchy, but those missteps are uncommon and not too noticeable when absorbing a painting in its entirety. Atmosphere has always been an important element for Cox.
For Arrival, the Harvest Gallery group show, Cox contributed five paintings, both current and earlier work. The earlier works were heavily architectonic. Morricone No. 22 is a beautiful example of his architectonic style; its dancing geometry would evolve into Siegfried’s Sonata. The architectural lines of a realistic and modernist-looking building meld into abstraction and above the building a yellow-tinted sky contained loose marks of swirls that slipped off the geometric shapes.
Also seen in Arrival was an older painting by Cox, titled Underground No. 3 the painting has three-dimensionally rendered shapes that are reintroduced as geode crystals popping out of intense greens and pinks which flow together like a hard edge river. Underground No. 3 is an aesthetically beautiful painting, earthy in emotion due to its meld of realistic forms within a background believable only in painting.
Cox’s paintings are filled with positive emotion and exuberant energy. The color and geometry of works in Siegfried’s Sonata are prime examples of successful painting, each painting was holding hands with the one next to it; each breathing life into the next. I would encourage Cox to continue painting in the style of Underground No. 3, and look forward to his continuing evolution.