Writing about surrealism in the 1920’s, Walter Benjamin coined the term “profane illumination” to describe the process through which one found an element of the uncanny in the most mundane objects. The Kentucky-born artist, Tony Cox, is no surrealist but he does have a particular knack for transforming everyday debris into otherworldly objects.
White Trash Mystic, Cox’s debut solo exhibition in New York, combines two practices in contemporary art that rarely enjoy one another’s company: found objects and embroidery. For Cox the most appealing objects are the most commonly disregarded: a cigarette package, a plastic spoon, toothpicks, scraps of fabric, etc. He carefully stitches these things into an array of patterns—from human faces to astrological symbols—on portions of black paper. In the process the banality of the objects is subsumed beneath a system that points beyond the phenomenal world towards the supernatural.
Cox invokes a multitude of cultural references in his work that function like stars in a constellation, both independently and in correlation with one another. There are lords and saints and a Persian princess. One of the larger, vertically oriented works, the “I told you so pole,” depicts a person in the flat frontal manner typical of late Egyptian imagery. Three bands of densely stitched thread hover above his head, perhaps in reference to a turban. His torso is diamond shaped, bounded by sets of dowel rods and wooden skewers. The title itself hints at a conjunction of the Native American totem pole and the self-righteous quip, “I told you so,” a pairing that couples the vulgar and the sacred in same way as the exhibition title itself, White Trash Mystic.
In a few of the works the backside is visible, giving the inverse of the image prominence. What you see is the pattern of embroidery without any of the found objects that are stitched to the front. If the faces and symbols depicted represent the consciously created images, then these patterns on the back could be considered the subconscious of artwork. They are the shapes generated during the act of creation, the unpremeditated forms that arise like shadows alongside the intentionally produced imagery.
For Cox all of this work is very personal. The hand stitching, which he does completely on his own, is a technique he learned as a child from his grandmother. The found objects he picked up on his travels in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Cox’s art establishes an alignment between his roots and his many journeys, defining a process that enables illumination through the skillful rejuvenation of life’s detritus.
Images: Courtesy the artist.