Before Renee Cox turned toward fine art, she spent years in fashion photography, modeling and design—a background that’s immediately relevant to the graphic, bold and charismatic works on view in “Soul Culture” at the newly opened Hannah Traore Gallery. Cox combines both analog and photographic techniques to create many-limbed portraits set against matte-black or shimmering gold-leaf backgrounds, like prismatic snowflakes or updated Christian icons. Not quite collage, these simultaneously inviting and forbidden figures bend, peel and gesture to you from the wall.
In The Subtle Bodies of Men (2016), for example, an orgy of greyscale bodies are cut out of paper and pasted in a tangled symmetry. The gold background and the dips and elevations give a sense of movement to the work, like a hissing snake pit. In The Self Similarity of the Selfie (2016), a swirling whirlpool of multicolored bodies gives rise to a patchwork Venus-figure staring steadily back at the viewer, haloed by a blonde afro teased into a spiky corona.
The fractal figures on view in “Soul Culture” seem to suggest multiple interpretations, generating notions of both horror and plenty. First, they might signal the expansive range of possibility inherent in each person—Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” manifest. And there is a deity-like aspect to these portraits as well: the repetitious limbs reminiscent of the Hindu mother-god Durga. But they also invoke fragmentation—lives and generations splintered and lost, such as in the bloody Transatlantic slave trade. After all, what easier way to justify violence than to collapse many lives into one? How better to erase idiosyncrasies than by making the eyes blur over with an excess?
At the same time that Cox poses a problem, she also suggests a solution: a new kind of creation myth may be in order. This is hinted at in the concatenated figures in the main gallery, such as in The Awakening of Mr. Adams (2016), in which the titular figure(s) emerges from an Edenic underbrush, small bodies entangling like a mass of roots or vines. But it reaches full force with a pair of floor-to-ceiling black-and-white portraits of a man and woman, the latter cradling a toddler in her arms. Coupled with a plinth filled with gold sculptures of otherworldly animals, it feels like the dawn of a new world. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Renee Cox, Subtle Bodies of Men, 2016. Mixed Media, 46 x 46x 7 inches