New YorkMarlborough Contemporary
June 20 – August 2, 2019
The act of stitching thread through canvas has numerous precedents, but Shadow Bathing, the first solo show for Tony Cox at Marlborough’s Chelsea gallery, provides a new imaginative framework for the process. The exhibition presents new works on canvas that challenge both medium and form. With the current generational tendency shifting back towards figuration, Cox boldly presents abstractions that feel wholly new. These works, some of which are small enough to fit in a hand bag while others wouldn’t fit in a sedan—hold a physical presence that emanates from the unique process that generates them.
At first glance the works appear graphic, with bright swaths of color laid down on flat backgrounds. There are few immediately recognizable forms with the exception of two compositions resembling genitalia. Most other works present abstract but biologically-reminiscent subject matter, and while each is unique there are greatly varying degrees of visual complexity. Bottle of Blueballs (2018) is a particularly successful work. In this piece a splatter shape of dark blue is divided into thirds by two yellow serpentine forms with a bright purple center, all on a white canvas. The stark simplicity of this work lays bare the crux of Cox’s work: its materiality.
On closer inspection, these works on canvas contain almost no paint. Most blocks of color are made from the laborious process of sewing thread into canvas, with many thousands of stitches per canvas. Cox uses a variety of stitching techniques that produce varying textures on the canvas. Productive trends of the past half century have leaned towards the obfuscation of materials and artistic labor. Both are readily apparent in Cox’s work. In this respect—although stylistically Cox’s work could not be further from it—his canvases share much in common with the work of post-minimalists. It is impossible to divorce the act of looking at Cox’s work from the understanding of the labor that went into their production, and Cox makes no attempt to hide it.
At the opening, one of the larger works, Marathon Mountain (2019), was shown in reverse, with the back of the canvas facing out. This choice suggested a nod to Cox’s earlier exhibitions, where works were displayed to intentionally show both faces. The reversal presents the scale of the stitching operation, and the durational aspect of works that rely on a labor intensive process. Ultimately, the work was turned around so the front of the canvas faced outward, which was an interesting choice as Marathon Mountain became arguably the weakest work of the show due to the relative lack of compositional clarity. Cox’s decision to show the back of his work, like an x-ray photograph of an Old Master painting, reveals what is not normally seen in the final product of art: its process and the labor that went into it.
In addition to the stitched element of these works, Cox sews sections of fabric, animal skins, suede, lip cord, and poly stuffing to further complicate the superficial texture. The materials of Memory Gong (2016) hang off the canvas, reminiscent of Eva Hesse’s Hang Up (1966). There is an inherent tension in these works, between the graphical quality of the image, with their defined edges of color, and the textural complexity of the surface. This combination of hard-edged abstraction and material-focused texture, filtered through the aesthetic lens of the present, feels fresh and certainly provokes thought.