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DAVID COHEN every Friday at artcritical.com

May 11, 2001

Stephen Cox, Organs of Action
This week David Cohen has been too immersed in the work of another critic - Donald Kuspit, who he interviewed last night at the New York Studio School in the Craft of Criticism series - to write a column. So here instead is his catalogue essay for Stephen Cox which opens at Culture Gallery, 415 West Broadway 5th Floor, New York NY 10012 this weekend, and runs thru' June 16. artcritical readers are cordially invited to the private view tomorrow night, Saturday May 12, 6-9pm

installation shots to follow
read David Cohen's related, 1994 essay,
"Out of India: Hindu Spirituality
in Recent British Sculpture"
.


Ardhanari: four oval forms, sensual yet hieratic, are modestly differentiated one from another by almost iconic signifiers of the reproductive organs. They are at once spiritual and erotic, much as they are both classical and primitive, both earthy and metaphysical. Duality or rather, indeed, an insistent transcendence of supposed duality is the hallmark of Stephen Cox's aesthetic. His art is chaste and charged, like the goddess Diana, and like, of course, the whole pantheon of Hindu deities. An "at onceness" permeates the entire, breathtakingly diverse yet unmistakably personal oeuvre of one of Britain's most singular and distinctive living sculptors. And as we are invoking deities we can say that Cox has an Indra-like capacity to divide and multiply himself and be in different (stylistic) places at once. His art has taken him from the cutting edge of avantgarde experiment in his home country to romantic trails through Italy and India to ancient Egyptian porphyry quarries. His explorations of themes and forms have been as varied as the most simple, primitive, totemic arrangement of stones to grand, megalithic carvings to intriguingly conceptual installations to fragmentary reliefs which defy modernist orthodoxy in their theatricality. It is not the Cox touch, or any formal preoccupation, or subject matter, or critical stance that make any piece by him unmistakably his own so much as the felicitious cohabitation within the work of two spirits, of "here and now" and of "elsewhere and forever".

The aspect of Cox's ¦uvre on which this present exhibition focuses, his sculptural representations of the senses and of the "organs of action", engages duality at a compelling level. The oval shapes found in these schemata are Brancusi-like in their intensely realised simplicity. They are depersonalised, unremonstrative, given shapes which draw upon meditative calm from their carver and induce a corresponding spiritual composure in their viewer. The series was first inspired by the Bhavagadgita, or rather in a diagram encountered in an old translation of the scripture that correlated the elements (there are five in Indian cosmology) and their corresponding senses. The very ambition to reify abstractions signals the degree to which Cox has entered the stream of Indian metaphysical discourse. The theme embodies within itself the interplay of sensual and conceptual. The physical act of touching, for instance, is reduced to the notion "touch" which is then represented, iconographically, by a carved hand standing in relief on an oval ground, which in turn is rendered by the carver through his own touch: a never-ending flipping back and forth between abstraction and physicality, conceptualization and actuality. The 1986 pair of carvings, Coils, seems to want to symbolise this very oscillation.

Cox's aesthetic has taken him South (to Italy) and then East (to India, to Egypt), and into the heart of classical culture and Indian spirituality. And yet throughout this odyssey he has, for the most part, managed to avoid the clichés of orientalism and exoticism. He has been making art in India for the best part of fifteen years, but it is significant that he did not arrive there, either geographically or spiritually, at the end of some mystical trail. In fact, his most Indian-seeming works, in this current exhibition, have their formal origin in a coat-of-arms seen by the artist high up on a castle wall in Viterbo, Italy: "a shield with just two eyes on it which was utterly hypnotising," the artist has recalled. This epiphany mirrors that of Cox's intellectual hero, the writer and scholar Adrian Stokes. "To arrive at the conception Quattro Cento", Stokes had confessed, "I had often to visit the Amavarati sculptures on the staircase of the British Museum". In Cox's aesthetic journey the coincidence and interconnectedness of traditions, whether modern or ancient, medieval or renaissance, Italian or Indian is par for the course. He has romanced many cultures without becoming a romantic. Indeed, the ability to synthesize contrasting periods, sensibilities, and aesthetic systems has to do with a perennially classical outlook. His is an art of equilibrium, order, continuum, rather than of disruption, angst, or ardor.

Cox emerged as an artist during the heyday of British conceptualism. From 196872 he taught at the Coventry College of Art where the Art and Language group was forming, and he kept closely in touch with the New York scene. During the 1970s he exhibited minimalist works; with hindsight his propped sheets of plaster anticipate in their surface treatment his nascent interests in classicism and in relief, but by his own account Cox was stifled by the reductivism and dogma of the 1970s avantgarde. It may have given him an abiding interest in the language of art, but he was determined to explore that language as a poet, not as a semiotician.

He escaped to Italy. He set out to work in all the extant quarries cited in Vasari's treatise ŒOn Technique', places like Carrara, Querceta, Viterbo, Verona, Tivoli. This in itself betrayed a conceptual edge, although unlike the innumerable fluxus-inspired field-trippers of the decade, Cox's project yielded aesthetic results. While Vasari was his guide book, Stokes was his philosophical mentor in all things lithic. Such poetically descriptive and psychologically charged essays as "The Quattro Cento" and "The Stones of Rimini" were a revelation to Cox, and prompted his immersion in renaissance and classical art. Stokes, who had been instrumental in the rediscovery of Agostino di Duccio, was also responsible for Cox's fascination with bas-relief; so too his concern with the contrast between rough and smooth. Above all, Cox was fired by Stokes's notion of the deep, unconscious influence of geology upon peoples, of how sculptors are shaped by the stone underneath them as surely as quarried slabs will one day be shaped in turn by the sculptors.

This idea is philosophically crucial to understanding Cox's connection with Indian carving tradition. Cox first went to India at the invitation of the British Council to make works for the Sixth Indian Triennale at New Delhi in 1986 (where he would win the gold medal). A scholarship enabled him to work and study for three months at Mahabalipuram, the coastal town thirty miles south of Madras where temple-carving workshops have remained active since the sixth century AD. With the town echoing to constant hammering at new statues for Hindu temples around the world, Mahabalipuram is the Indian Pietra Santa, the Tuscan sculptors' town where Cox has worked, only the sacral element lends even more potency to the brew of craft, tradition, and geological connectedness. Cox was so enamoured with what he found there, and the effectiveness with which he could work with local craftsmen, that he now visits for several months each year. It is significant, though, that he arrived in India to extend his notion of classicism, not to challenge it. His use of affordable and highly skilled labor enables him to work at an ambitious scale, but the collaboration with Indian workers has as much a spiritual as an economic incentive.

While Cox has turned away from Britain for his inspiration, the prehistoric vein that runs rich through his oeuvre has a specifically British provenance. From Constable to Moore, Stonehenge has proved a compellingly romantic subject. Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill once entertained the notion of collaborating to produce a modern Stonehenge. The stone circles of Avebury inspired the finest work of Paul Nash. Megaliths, furthermore, cut across the partisan divides of the avantgarde, appealing equally to the modernist Barbara Hepworth (a close friend of Stokes's by the way) and the neo-romantic Graham Sutherland. William Turnbull, who was one of Cox's more influential tutors at the Central School of Art and Design, continued the tradition. His precycladic totems, like Moore's earthy draped reclining figures, invoke a Dionysian Greece which is a far cry from effete notions of the classical as being elegant and refined.

Cox's rough-hewn, gargantuan carvings, a significant aspect of his work, nestle within this tradition. In his work, however, he takes the implicit sacral quality a stage further. When one of his deities is installed more likely, sadly, in a business park than a sacred grove or modern Stonehenge he only considers the work complete when he has performed a personal libation ritual over it, dressing the stone with oil. In many of his smaller works, including some in this exhibition, a similar libation is performed, with repetitions required. While this does not make Cox some kind of performance artist, and nor does he entertain Beuysian pretentions to the status of shaman, these private rituals mediate the sculpture as a "thing in itself" between a monolith beyond time and a lived experience in the real time of its beholders. The libation oils draw the sculpture back to the spirit in which it was created, and forward to the spirit which it seeks to evoke.

Cox's journey has taken him a long way, then, from the minimalism and conceptualism of his student days. And yet the legacy of these movements is as present in Cox's classical continuum as temple carving or the Quattrocento. The regimentation of wall-mounted paired-down faces or modern industrial buckets in which carved lotuses blossom is nothing if not serial, taking his work right back to the beginning of his critical inquiries. But the story of how he came to make Tank is pure romance. A boy in a village presented him with a lotus. Later, he placed it overnight in a stainless steel mess-tin, even though his assistant told him not to bother, that it would be dead the next day. In the morning, though, he was delighted to find it had opened and was still full of vitality. In setting out, with his workers, to carve what is a symbolic representation of an infinite series of blossoming lotuses he attempts a metaphysical elaboration of this simple joy. Chiselling away, can he but remember Stokes's immortal words about the Quattrocento carvers, who "made stone to bloom"?