Living in the material world: Kris Cox at the Quintenz Gallery
The Aspen Times
Kris Cox: Aries, yin, metal, rabbit
Showing through Jan. 24, with an opening reception tonight at 6 p.m.
The Quintenz Gallery
For his first two years of college, Kris Cox took a pre-dental course. The prospect of being a dentist, though, began to look dim when he realized how difficult the classes were. “And unpleasant,” he added. Cox had virtually no contact at that time with fine arts, but he met a couple of grad students who directed him toward a sculpture class, and his trajectory was changed.
Cox found much to like in the arts program at Claremont, in his native Southern California. His ceramics teacher, the late Paul Soldner, a pioneering clay artist and a longtime Aspenite, was a huge influence, and a “phenomenal professor” for Cox. Cox found he had a natural skill with ceramics. And he loved the feel of clay.
“I fell in love with the material right away,” he said. “Once I touched clay — and was seduced by the wheel, and saw I had a facility for it — I fell in love with it.”
Cox stayed serious about the medium. In the mid-‘70s he came to the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, the Snowmass Village art-making institution that Soldner had co-founded several years earlier. Cox was one of 12 ceramic apprentices who signed on for a 40-hour week in exchange for room, board and studio space.
“But there were no studios,” Cox, who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for the past decade, recalled. “So we worked 80 hours a week, built studios and kilns and lived in conditions only young people can tolerate.” Cox went on to earn an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, taught ceramics at San Diego State, and in 1982 left the academic world to pursue making art full-time.
In 1995, Cox spent a year in Paris. The new setting fostered a change in his creative practice; he began making two-dimensional works. He hadn’t become disenchanted exactly with clay — the first drawings he made were images of clay pots — but other approaches were crowding out the focus on ceramics.
“Clay became not the most appropriate medium. I looked at other mediums to do the concepts I was working with,” he said. Two-dimensional art suited him: I decided I enjoyed it. I liked the freedom not to be limited by the kiln and clay.”
The move away from clay and kiln and three-dimensional objects, though, did not quite mark a break with the more solid materials. The latest phase of Cox’s career has been consumed largely with paintings, but they are paintings of a physical, substantial, and materials-based nature. Cox calls himself a “constructor” and “a materials guy.” He works with putty and wood and wax, and not at all with brushes.
A series of Cox’s latest paintings are included in an exhibition — Aries, Yin, Metal, Rabbit — that opens today at the Quintenz Gallery, with a reception at 6 p.m. On first look, the paintings are two-dimensional in their essence, emphasizing composition, color, geometry and light. But as Cox guided me through his process, the constructor in him became more apparent. The paintings revealed their physical layers, the drilled holes, the way they were built up more than painted. We focused on one piece — “Hemicycle 83•107,” a work on panel measuring nearly nine by seven feet that featured circles and half-circles, grids and squiggles, beeswax, paint and a high-gloss finish.
“This painting is dimensional,” Cox said. “My paintings are not a window on the world. They contain the imagery. They’re not painted on the surface. There are objects embedded in it. The circles are drilled and filled, drilled and filled. The grid is cut into the wood before any putty is applied to the surface. Every circle, one can see the edge of painting. The process is a lot of layering, a lot of addition and subtraction. I’m interested in surfaces that have a patina, that are created from a process. I like the sensuality of materials.”
But Cox also considers himself a painter. (He is also an admirer of more traditional painting. Among his favorite art forms is figurative painting, where the focus is on the two-dimensional image.) Along with materiality, images are given an emphasis in his work. The circle has figured prominently in his painting for years.
“I just find the circle the most profound shape in life,” he said. “It exists naturally, and we can make a circle. The reference is so universal — probably one of the first images man made is the sun, I assume.”
In his latest pieces, Cox has taken a new look at the shape. His circles are now bisected, with half of each circle in one color and the other half in another.
“It seems like everything in life, there’s two sides to every story,” he said. “As I get older, that’s become more and more true. I can change my mind 180 degrees in a day. And that drives me crazy. And it’s dynamic — you can’t improve on a circle, but you divide it in half and it becomes yin and yang, positive and negative, black and white.”
Another philosophical aspect comes into play in the paintings: pure chance. The work is often finished with a wash, or several washes. In “Hemicycle 83•107,” that resulted in background spots that are darker than other areas. The dark spots are determined by the thickness of the putty, an element that the artist claims no control over.
“It absorbs differently where the putty is thicker. That can be a happy thing or it can destroy the piece,” Cox said. “I like the fact that I’m not completely in control.”
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The exhibition title Aries, Yin, Metal, Rabbit reflects several things: Cox’s work with a Jungian therapist; his interest in poetry, especially haiku, and the Chinese horoscope; the year and time of his birth.
And the title is broad enough to allow Cox to have different areas of exploration. In addition to the paintings, the show features a new form for Cox — cast pigmented beeswax works on wood panel, which he calls “Re-Sites.” The pieces lack the design element of the Hemicycles, and are darker in color. And they are far smaller, which Cox believes alters significantly the relationship between the art and the viewer.
“When I started doing these, the last couple months, I liked the intimacy,” he said. “One needs to get close to appreciate them. You get close and you see the sensuality, the lusciousness of the surface. When they’re larger, the relationship of the viewer to the object changes. Here, the focus gets narrower.”
There is a third aspect to the current exhibition — Cox’s return to ceramics. When he moved to the Roaring Fork Valley from San Francisco, a decade ago, to work as a resident at Anderson Ranch, he did a series of clay pieces, his first in years. Several months ago he returned to the medium. The high-fire porcelain vessels at Quintenz represent the first time Cox has exhibited ceramic work in more than 10 years.
“Because I thought it would be therapeutic. And it has been. Like a form of meditation,” he said. “And I found I could make anything I can imagine in clay. I have that facility. And the purity of clay was seductive.”
Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s new fall lecture series will run weekly from Oct. 20 through Dec. 6. The lineup consists of artists nationwide who will be spending one to three weeks at the ranch completing projects within their area of expertise and exploring new work in the studios.