Her Body, Herself

Renee Cox's 'shocking' work is as much about a woman's strength as it is about sensuality.

February 10, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Where in heaven's name are the decency police when you need them? This month's show of erotica by Renee Cox at C. Grimaldis Gallery offers what surely must be the most shocking photographs ever exhibited in Baltimore.

If that sounds like hyperbole, think Robert Mapplethorpe without the whip, think Andres Serrano, think Helmut Newton with nipples. Think Cindy Sherman posing herself in blackface as the Playboy centerfold; think Sherrie Levine grabbing pornographic images off the internet.

I know, it's almost too shocking to imagine.

But once you've worked yourself up into a frothing rage of righteous indignation, once you've convinced yourself of the clear and present danger to the moral fabric of the community, the threat to our children, the mockery of our values and the pernicious subversion of everything we hold dear in the name of a misguided conception of "art," then -- and only then -- take a deep breath and think again.

Maybe the woman is onto something. Maybe it takes a lot of guts to do what she's doing. Maybe she doesn't give a damn what you think.

Cox is no stranger to controversy. Last year she was plucked from relative obscurity and turned into a national symbol of artistic irresponsibility by none other than the mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who denounced her photograph Yo Mama's Last Supper as blasphemy when it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

The picture showed Cox posing as a semi-nude Jesus surrounded by 12 black disciples arrayed in the classic compositional scheme of Leonardo's famous fresco. It was barely on the walls before the Catholic League, a New York-based advocacy group, complained that the picture insulted Catholics. Giuliani pledged to establish a decency commission to review works in museums that received city funding.

Meanwhile, the critics at The New York Times dismissed Cox with one voice as an opportunist, an exhibitionist and a publicity hound.

The uproar caused the value of Yo Mama's Last Supper to jump threefold from its original asking price of $8,000 by the end of the exhibit, when it was snapped up by a collector.

And that's pretty much the way it has gone since then for Cox, 41, who says she still can't quite understand what all the fuss was about. "This country is so puritanical," she says. "Slavery taught African-Americans to be ashamed of their bodies. I want to change that. In Europe and other parts of the world, people have a much more natural relationship to their bodies."

Today she is an art world celebrity, a name with all the right buzz whose works are sought after by wealthy collectors and exhibited in prestigious museums. (One of Cox's works, a huge sendup of the stereotypes of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, occupies pride of place at the entrance to the Baltimore Museum of Art's show Looking Forward / Looking Black, which opened last week).

An exhibition, in every sense of the word

But except for Cox's mural-sized re-creation of Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe, in which the artist poses as the naked woman lunching on the lawn, most of the works on view at Grimaldis are a far cry from the historical parodies of European masterpieces that first earned Cox notoriety.

More than half the photographs depict the artist in frankly erotic poses and costumes -- tightly bound leather corsets, fishnet stockings, stiletto heels -- that boldly invite the viewer to share her sexual fantasies. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that these highly charged images are presented alongside dozens of ordinary snapshots of the artist's family -- her parents, husband, children and in-laws.

The effect is to turn the viewer into a kind of double voyeur, a cross between a keyhole peeping Tom and a snoop in someone else's family photo album.

Cox stopped by Baltimore last week to attend the opening of her new show. In person, she's strikingly direct and forthright -- and far more diminutive than she appears in her photographs, which intentionally make her seem larger than life.

The daughter of prosperous Jamaican immigrant parents who grew up in the exclusive New York suburb of Scarsdale, Cox married her white college sweetheart (a Frenchman who now is a successful investment banker) and decided to become an artist 10 years ago while working as a fashion photographer in Paris.

Because of these unstereotypical experiences, Cox has a thing about identity. It's the inspiration for her art, the one thing she won't compromise.

Growing up black in a mostly white world, a woman in a world dominated by men, she learned to live a sort of dual existence. On the one hand, she was constantly struggling to figure out who she was and where she fit in; on the other, she was constantly fending off people telling her who she was and where she fit in.

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