As an artist working across photography, collage, and mixed-media installation, Renee Cox dreams big. Throughout her three-decade career, she has been bold, brash, unrelenting, and, above all, unrepentant. It’s with an aim to create a body of work that envisions a reality unlike one we have never seen before.
“I want my work to rule the world and have that world created by me, where everything melds together: gender, people, and kindness,” Cox said in a recent phone interview.
Cox is currently the subject of a solo exhibition, titled “Soul Culture,” at the recently opened Hannah Traore Gallery in New York. Running through May 28, the show presents a series of recent work that Cox loosely calls “portraits,” which in the artist’s hands take the shape of three-dimensional sculptural collages comprised of a few images that have been digitally reconfigured, resized, and replicated thousands of times over to create a single portrait.
The genesis for “Soul Culture” began in Bali in 2013. Cox was vacationing at a luxury resort on the Indoneisan island and had brought with her the audiobook for “Living the Liberated Life and Dealing with the Pain Body” by Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and self-help author. Tolle’s message wasn’t that different than what other spiritual leaders of his ilk might say, but for Cox it resonated because he was saying all the right things, at the right time, in the right place. It was exactly what she needed to hear: stop waiting for the world to validate you.
As a professor, it’s advice she has given students, at Columbia, NYU, and Yale, over the years in some form or another. “My purpose in life is to free grad students from themselves,” she said. “You have got to get confident and believe in what you’re doing. The best idea you’ll have will come from the soul. That’s where the idea is pure.”
A major turning point in here career came In 2001, when Rudy Guiliani, then the mayor of New York City, called for the creation of a “decency panel” after her 1996 photographic polyptych Yo Mama’s Last Supper went on view at the Brooklyn Museum as part of a group exhibition titled “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers.” In the work Cox stands at the center, in the place of Christ, fully nude with her arms outstretched.
Cox never backed down to Guiliani or his lawyers but, she claims that the art world did not come to her defense, “it was the actors, directors, and filmmakers that came out on my behalf.”
Cox’s last New York solo show came in 2006, the year after she left Robert Miller Gallery, which had represented her for eight years. Hannah Traore, the gallery’s founder, had reached out to Cox when she was still planning her gallery’s inaugural programming and said she considered it a dream come true when Cox, whom she called her “icon,” agreed to do a show. “Renee does everything with such intention,” Traore said, adding that Cox’s art “must be seen in person to fully appreciate their intricacy and depth.”
Perhaps best known for her “Raje” series of empowered Wonder Woman–inspired self-portraits from the late ’90s, Cox presents in “Soul Culture” work that takes her interest in mixing disparate things together one step further through what she calls “little people,” collaged pieces that fuse together aliens, pre-Colombian art, Afro-Futurist imagery, and Japanese characters.
These composite people are the ones who populate her imagine world, a refuge for and controlled by Black and Brown people. Based on the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey’s philosophy: “Garvey wanted to create Black pride, uphold it, and uplift it to improve the lives of Blacks all around the world,” Cox explained.
Cox eventually intends for her little people to tower over viewers, standing seven feet tall. “I called them little people because they were the first to emerge after I had change my thoughts,” she said. “They’re meant to be models for much larger sculptures that I would like to do.”
On view are both standard photographs, what Cox calls “flat” images, and her layered, three-dimensional cutouts that are stacked, flipped “portraits,” which were influenced by her research on mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot’s theories of sacred geometry and fractals. In An Infinite Spirit (Black Girl Magic), from 2016, Cox manipulates hundreds of versions and sections of one portrait, changing their size, color, and orientation and placing them on different planes to create an otherworldly “portrait” that becomes almost spiritual.
“Fractals are the same images that can be the size of a dot on a pinhead or the size of the Empire State building,” Cox said. “When you start playing with that aspect, you can transform one thing into other things.”
In another work, titled The Awakening of Mr. Adams (2016), Cox presents a double portrait of the artist Derrick Adams, who is also a friend, with his chest comprised of hundreds of versions of his strong bent arms creating a strong, heart-shaped core. Adams is surrounded by a wreath of what at first glance appears to be green foilage, but it’s actually a clever collage trick. Cox has replicated and manipulated images of Adams bent over touching his toes and tinted it green. “By doing the repetition and scaling down each time, it takes on the look of a leaf,” she said. “It puts you in touch with your inner child. I began to find joy in doing that work, and then I went in full on.”
Cox’s approach to collage, in which bodies meld to create something new and visually stunning, comes from the national motto of Jamaica, where she was born: “Out of many one people.” She added, “In my portraits, I am able to use other people’s bodies as one whole.”
Cox said the point of her work is to inspire close looking from all those who come to see the show. “You’re not going to tell me you came into the gallery and whipped through there and left in no time,” she deadpanned. “When you see my work, you have to look at it. I don’t think at that moment you can have a negative thought come into your head.”