The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

TONY COX Shapes of Shade

On View
Marlborough Gallery
October 10 – November 10, 2013
New York

In Shapes of Shade, Tony Cox’s debut solo exhibition with Marlborough Gallery, the New York artist has both expanded upon and refined an aesthetic he’s been nurturing for years: the embroidered canvas. There are 11 pieces in the show, all made between 2012 and 13, and each exudes the kind of meditative tranquility that is often inherent to objects that are produced through slow and deliberate repetitious action. In Cox’s work, the act of embroidery seems as if it may open up into transcendent experience from time to time.

The feeling of transcendence comes not only from the sense of repetition but from the compositions Cox threads into his canvases. Squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, squiggles—these are the building blocks of each work and they are arranged into designs that call to mind the hand-stitched tapestries of the Navajo Indians. Hard angles are softened, straight lines waver slightly, the mid-point might be just off-center; there is a certain looseness to Cox’s forms that gives them a fluid quality without diminishing their sturdiness.

In works such as “Colour Therapy” and “Benben Stone” (both 2012) patterns of symmetry wobble slightly, accommodating the natural rhythms of hand and eye. If these pieces had been woven flawlessly using an algorithm dialed into a computer, much of their gentleness and humanity would fall away. As they are, they possess the organic quality of something created at a low speed, one layer at a time, like a canyon wall.

In earlier efforts Cox included much more stuff on his canvases—pillows, buttons, doilies, chopsticks—and the compositions could seem driven by the material. These new pieces shed all but the thread and some well-placed acrylic paint. They are cleaner, bolder, more assured. They also register a decisive shift in the emphasis of Cox’s work away from a practice of repurposing life’s detritus. With these pieces, he’s evidently taken a much more process-oriented direction. Cox’s art has always been methodical, but now that characteristic really gains primacy.

As in his last exhibition, Shapes of Shade includes portraits such as “Saint Shady” and “Saint Trance Snow” (both 2012) that function like personal icons. The latter appears to be disgorging a silver stream and the former could be a (shade) tree with testicles for eyes. There is a quasi-tribal quality in the flat geometry of each portrait’s design; it’s not hard to envision them on totem poles. The presence of homemade saints adds to the transcendental feel of the exhibition as a whole, and extends the cast of characters in the artist’s personal pantheon.

Other work attends to social issues that are important to Cox. The largest piece in the show, “Truvada’s Triangle” (2013) depicts the iconic red ribbon that symbolizes solidarity among people living with AIDS/HIV. The canvas is shaped like a triangle with the big ribbon just off-center. It is the first piece one sees upon entering the gallery and—along with its conspicuous placement—the scale of the work makes it the anchor of the exhibition. Truvada is the first drug to be approved by the FDA as a preventative for HIV. Cox’s work makes associative reference to the Bermuda triangle, suggesting the breakthrough drug could also cause confusion and the general loss of one’s bearings. More reliable than a drug, the work seems to propose, is a community.

There are also a few pieces that are pretty light-hearted. “Digging for Diamonds in the Disco” and “Egyptian Boy Scout” (both 2012) strike particularly playful notes. And there is at least one work, “Past’s Future Present” (2013), that is notably enigmatic. The inclusion of these pieces lends the show tremendous range and suggests it could expand in any direction or in many directions at once. Cox’s embroidered canvases are like mandalas that each house different deities, which makes the show seem grand even when each work feels so intimate.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues