In his most characteristic paintings, Cedric Cox fractures the world in order to bring it to a new whole. The recent work of this gifted local artist is on display in a solo exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Underground through January 13, 2018. The exhibit includes twelve large canvases and several smaller works. Cox completed all of the paintings in 2017. Every work in the perfectly sized show is of uniformly high quality. The viewer can stand in the center of this Over the Rhine storefront gallery and take in the artist’s impressive creative output with a single glance.
The title of the show, “Clavilux,” refers to an early 20th century American invention that played visual light “concerts.” Light and music are recurring themes in this show. With their luminescent colors, Cox’s new paintings resemble stained glass windows. They glow with brilliant reds, yellows, and blues. Pieces of musical instruments, particularly the curving scroll of violins and guitars, appear in a number of paintings. As he makes clear in several of his titles, “Kwame’s Guitar,” “Getting in Tune,” “Rockin’ Robin,” the rhythms and repetitions of music are strong influences on these works. Indeed, some of his paintings could be described as the visual equivalent of Jazz. A work like “Rockin’ Robin,” with its competing images and sense of improvisation, resembles the multiple rhythms of Jazz that eventually coalesce into a satisfying whole.
The way light shines through the bold primary colors of these paintings is a new stylistic direction for Cedric Cox. Cubism, on the other hand, the breaking up and reassembling of recognizable objects in fractured linear compositions, has been a constant influence throughout his career and remains so in this show. In his use of this style, I have never felt that Cox was making a statement about our ability, or inability, to see the world around us. Rather, I think he uses Cubism to make a fundamentally aesthetic statement. Cedric Cox is in love with beauty. Through his compositional structures, he transforms the mostly urban and not always pretty world he knows into something beautiful.
This transformation is wonderfully evident in “Off the Wall.” At the center of the painting, triangular lines frame a fractured guitar surrounded by a burst of playful shapes. Cox’s paintings have always had a masculine quality, conveyed here by the sharp lines and deep red and yellow colors. The most eye-catching color, however, is a delicate blue at the center of the painting. Blue appears in every painting in the show, suggesting the color has a particular significance for the artist. In the forefront of “Kwame’s Guitar” is a sensuously curved blue vase, a traditionally feminine image. The color blue, I think, is Cox’s access to his feminine side, to the opposite of the masculine impulse to fracture and reconstruct. Blue is containment and repose. What gives Cox’s recent paintings their sense of equilibrium, of opposite forces sustained in harmony, is his ability to tap into both a masculine and feminine view of the world.
“Underwater Love No. 2” is a sensuous seascape of soft colors and curving shapes. Rather than a Cubist breaking up of the world, in this painting Cox has surrendered to the world’s flowing, feminine beauty. Appropriate to its subject matter, the primary colors are shades of blue. The painting has all the vibrancy of Cox’s more linear works, yet is seems to come from a different source of creativity. A similar creative impulse informs “Dutch and Chinese Impressions No. 2,” a landscape of flowers in blue, purple, green, and yellow. The pale sunflowers are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s famous blooms, as are the iris that appear in the other landscapes in this series. In both paintings, Cox renders the thrusting and swirling fecundity of nature in subtly sexual terms.
Cox moves furthest from his Cubist roots in two surreal dreamscapes, “Duncanson Delight No. 2: Kingdom in the Clouds” and “Obatala with Crazy Horse,” paintings created for his recent show at the Taft Museum. Both have similar subject matter: a receding landscape framed by trees with a river flowing toward or away from distant mountains that lie under a sky filled with spirits. Cox is working here with African American and Native American symbols, but his compositions resemble Tiffany windows in a Protestant church. It is as though he wants us to see that all spiritual traditions share common elements.
“Obatala with Crazy Horse” is a powerful painting. In the foreground, two muscular horses, rendered in red and yellow, emerge dancing from a body of water. This is the famous dream vision of Chief Crazy Horse. From the sky above, a blue arm, surrounded by swirling colored bands, descends, the delicate fingers of the hand reaching toward the horses. This is an image from African mythology. In a single painting, Cox combines African and Native American, male and female iconography. It is an expansive, embracing artistic vision. Go to this show to see a Cincinnati painter who has arrived at a mature mastery of his art.
–Daniel A. Burr