Thursday, November 1st, 2001

Renee Cox

Robert Miller
526 West 26th Street
New York 10022

September 22- November 3, 2001

Cox’s “American Family”, recently seen at her first solo show at the Robert Miller Gallery, a large group of family snaps fanned out on the floor of a side room. Set against the large-scale erotic images in the other rooms, this group of vacation shots and family momentos may appear to be a point of departure, or the safe domestic ground for the artist’s sexual bravado. But, as with many aspects of the show, this deserves another look. Images suggestive of patriotism, Catholic piety, and strongly asserted black and Jamaican identity complicate, and in some instances blunt, the irony of mock-heroic iconography in a few larger photographs, and the casual eroticism in a few smaller ones. And, one can’t help but notice, amidst the many references to Cox’s African heritage, that her husband is white, the children posed elsewhere in African garb are of mixed race. Over and again in this show, what appear on the surface to be bold assertions of identity or sexual empowerment are offset or rendered ambivalent in the graphic subtext. In a film close-up of french kissing, for instance, length and silence wear at the satire of hardcore pornography, the relentless thrust and counter-thrust of the two tongues suggesting a mute and ambiguous stalemate in an oral battle of the sexes. On a wall nearby, male legs in drag open and close slowly, the man’s sex faintly visible in the darkness between his thighs. The parody of sexy posturing is neutralized by its visual obscurity (we can’t get the punch line because we can’t make it out) and the tease by its scrambling of gender. Cox drew Mayor Giuliani’s ire with “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” a frontal nude of the artist assuming Christ’s place amidst his disciples. Looking at her follow similar appropriation strategies in this exhibition one finds, more often than not, that the work is appealingly unresolved. One of the more erotic images in the show – which features yellow, red-tipped roses fanning from a lap to just below the subject’s bare breasts – hangs opposite Cox’s African reworking of Manet’s “Olympia”, sans black servant. The offering of roses is thus detached from its original context. The political and sexual audacity of the black servant assuming the temptress role is largely, but not entirely de-contextualized and softened in Cox’s photograph, which replaces the servant with her sons in tribal garb. In other works, the obviousness of her art-historical appropriations renders the appropriation almost beside the point, the artist’s nakedness appearing all the more vulnerable. It is possible that the images of Cox in fetish gear or her juxtapositions of nudes and childhood snaps were meant to shock. The remarks of visitors to the gallery, however, tended to be glibly or blandly objectifying (‘nice abs,’ ‘nice rear,’ ‘I’d like to know who her personal trainer is’). It could be argued that we are now in a post-erotic time, at least in regards to visual art, since our capacity for shock has been depleted in other contexts. If this is so then all the better for Cox. She should exploit the change of erotic zeitgeist, however it plays out, as an opportunity to tease out further doubts and confusions underlying her sexual bravura.