Renee Cox: Soul Culture @Hannah Traore

JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 photographic works, displayed against white and yellow walls in the main gallery space.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 2 archival digital inkjet prints on cotton rag, 1993, each sized 48×84 inches, last of 2APs
  • 9 mixed media, 2016, sized roughly 46x46x5 to 76x76x6 inches, unique
  • 5 Dibond prints, 2018, each sized 42×42 inches, in editions of 3
  • 30 terracotta and solar gold pigment sculptures, 2016, various sizes, unique

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we look back on the 2020s from the vantage point of a few decades in the future, it seems likely that we will see these years as a time when Black culture, particularly Black fine art photography, went through a period of flourishing expansion. This rising is gathering momentum in several different ways: slow moving art institutions are changing their priorities, to better engage with Black narratives and Black audiences; older Black photographers are being rightfully rediscovered; and younger artists are pushing harder on longstanding limits, stereotypes, and prejudices, reinventing themselves, encouraging each other, and moving Black perspectives further into the mainstream.

Much of this renewal is centered on looking inward at the Black experience and trying to recommunicate some of its richness, and part of this wave includes efforts to more robustly visualize the complexities of Black identity. Photographically, this has meant everything from seeing the positivity in Black family life to celebrating Black beauty in all its forms. Renee Cox’s pre-pandemic project Soul Culture fits into this larger resurgence; it places its roots in straightforward photographic portraiture, but ultimately applies complex layers of abstraction and collage to the idea of picturing the effervescence of contemporary Black uniqueness.

Cox isn’t exactly a newcomer to this artistic game; she’s been at it since she completed her MFA in the early 1990s. For some, Cox will be most remembered for her multipart image “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”, a restaging of Leonardo’s classic scene with a nude version of herself in the central position; it touched off a firestorm of overheated “culture wars” reaction when it was included in a show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2001, ultimately leading then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani to publicly denounce the photographic frieze, calling for “decency standards” to be applied to works included at shows in New York museums that receive public funding. Looking at the picture now, it’s hard to entirely fathom how such a work could ignite such conservative cultural outrage, but it did, and Cox had to endure the spotlight.

But Cox’s photographic career is much deeper and more varied than that one flashpoint. Often using herself as a model, she’s thoughtfully explored many nuanced facets of Black life, from memorably casting herself as a Black superhero (in the late 1990s) to boldly reclaiming various art historical tropes and motifs in her series Flipping the Script (one powerful image from the project is on view in the back of this show, re-imagining Michelangelo’s David as an elegant Black man with an afro).

Soul Culture finds Cox intensely experimenting with the representation of Black identity. Starting with photographs of herself, other artists, and various models, Cox has multiplied and expanded these single images into densely layered patterns and repetitions of bodies (and body parts) that seem to morph and replicate right before our eyes like living organisms. Some will see the self-similar patterns of fractals, as they tunnel down into seemingly never-ending reductions of size. Others might recognize the geometric structures of mandalas, their meditative circles organizing the faces into swirling rhythms. Cox incorporates these and other mathematical forms into her intricate designs, turning individuals into more abstract representations of being.

As a project, Soul Culture actually includes two distinct but adjacent bodies of work, made a few years apart. Cox began with physical collages in 2016, methodically hand crafting her compositions using cut paper. While it’s very difficult to see from installation pictures (or even some of the detailed closeups above), Cox’s collages are surprisingly three dimensional, reaching out and building up from the surface several inches in most cases, with wisps of loose arms trailing precariously out into space. “Subtle Bodies of Men” is the most physical of the works, creating a tangle of bodies that feels woven, nested, and almost hopelessly piled up (almost like the anonymous figures in Auguste Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell”). The broader composition stretches out to four corners like a spider’s web, but in the center, it’s a thick honeycombed mass, the tattooed bodies replayed again and again.

The largest of the collages “An Infinite Spirit (Black Girl Magic)” is extraordinarily intricate, with bodies tightly mirrored and repeated, creating mystical rotating circles, fiery edges, and long extending lines like tentacles. Other works featuring a single person extend an individual into more god-like forms, with multiple heads and arms that shimmer and wave. A self-portrait titled “The Self Similarity of the Selfie” places Cox’s own intense gaze at the top of a tower of mirrored arms and a swirling vortex of bodies that swim like schooling fish. Doubling motifs, cascading patterns, and even dangling locks of hair are employed by Cox in still other collages to expand various individuals into a fluid essence or presence. As a group, these works feel expressively elemental, taking simple interchangeable bodies (both male and female) and exploding them out into something more forcefully personal and spacious; and as physical manifestations of the particular Black artistic renaissance taking place, they feel appropriately complex and richly multi-layered.

In 2018, Cox traded the cut-and-paste aesthetic of physical collaging for the digital manipulations of Photoshop, leading to even more meticulous patterning and a deliberate reduction of her palette back to black and white (with a few hints of red in some of the images). Most of the second wave works are resolutely circular, with sharply rounded, high contrast borders, even when the resulting works are printed as squares. With the digital ability to make the repetitions even more dense and the fractal reductions even smaller, Cox’s compositions feel more fully mystical, with parallel worlds, alternate personas, and multiverses trailing off into infinity. Up close, the architecture of her forms has become more involved, leading to identities that are more enigmatic than before – individual god-like entities have now been transformed into more amorphous spirits that never quite settle down long enough to resolve. Like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of bodhisattvas, Cox’s digital collages have a sense of the unknowable, where identity is divided, replicated, and reassembled in a never-ending cycle of grace.

Deciding to embrace digital manipulation is a dangerous game, as it requires more work to push an original and personal aesthetic beyond what the software features deliver with ease, and even the most impressive of manipulations can feel dulled by machine translation. Cox’s physical collages retain the wonder of craftsmanship, and as a result, feel intimate and personal, like a dialogue between artist and subject. Her digital collages are infused with a streamlined and futuristic mood, with the improvisation of physical touch replaced by infinite digital precision. Both approaches offer their own advantages, and Cox’s aesthetic has subtly evolved to match the available options.

As expressions of identity (Black or otherwise) are going through a period of contemporary transition and growth, it seems altogether appropriate that experienced artists like Cox are experimenting with unconventional ways to extend photographic portraiture to accommodate these new possibilities. The best of the works on view here get beyond simple visual trickery to tap into something more energetically expansive, providing a potential path beyond the usual constraints of how personality is captured or communicated. My hope is that these Soul Culture works are a beginning rather than an ending, and that Cox will now feel emboldened to push further into the fertile territory she’s discovered; each person is a combination of forces, influences, ideas, and aspirations, and Cox’s iterative collage techniques offer unexpected avenues for visualizing that rich complexity.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The large collages are priced between $40000 and $50000, while the editioned prints are priced at $15000 each. The larger black and white portraits are priced at $35000 each. Cox’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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