VISUAL ARTS Stephen Cox Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Friday 04 July 1997
Different, and yet somehow very appropriate, Cox fits in. This exhibition is the first to use Dulwich's handsome grounds and, I think, the first to place work in the mausoleum. It's a rather odd feature for a picture gallery, but with a few smaller works by Cox just visible in the half light it makes perfect sense. He is an inspired choice for the gallery's inaugural show of contemporary sculpture, bringing the outside and inside together and making sense of the whole.
The exhibition opens with Cox's work from the early Eighties, with tondos and broken reliefs carved in Italian marble which take their cue from the classical remains of an ancient Mediterranean culture. They look like architectural fragments, carefully pieced together in an archaeological jigsaw.
Cox began sculpting in the Sixties in an essentially minimalist style, but as a stone-carver, a way of working that hasn't changed for thousands of years, the lure of the past soon offered a more potent and richer source of inspiration than the present. The mood of his work, the focus of the inspiration, almost always goes with the stone: as if it already has its identity before Cox starts to carve. Italian marbles, Egyptian porphyry and black Indian granite all turn into works that are in tune with the culture from whence they came.
Egypt perhaps has provided Cox with his clearest line to the past. He was invited there in 1989 to make a work for Cairo's new Opera House and given permission to take stone from the old imperial quarry, the first artist to do so for 500 years. The block he selected had been roughed out 2,000 years earlier by a Roman mason, the marks of his tools still visible in the stone. Cox's carving was simply the next step in a process begun long ago.
India, too, has had a lasting effect on Cox's life and work. He first visited in 1986 as Britain's representative in the Indian Triennial and for the past 10 years has kept a studio at Mahabalipuram, a small town down the coast from Madras, famed for its temple sculpture and centuries- old stone-carving traditions.
Indian-inspired work dominates the show, particularly in the gardens with Yatra, a giant, white granite wave topped by two black granite canoes; Patra, a huge hybrid of woman and cobra emerging from the stone; and Organs of Action, five oval monoliths each bearing a single sexual organ. All have a fragmentary feel: the canoes are broken at the back; Patra seems like the surviving central section of some even larger relic of another age; and the Organs of Action are incomplete torsos reduced to their most minimal forms. It is almost as if it would be too much for Cox to make them whole; as if the fragmentary nature helps to keep the past at a distance.
The balance between past and present,minimalism and figuration allows his work a peculiar, but very effective mix of Eastern and Western. It's a balancing act that makes it neither one thing nor the other, yet it never seems unresolved, rather the balance gives it a universal quality. These sculptures have an atmosphere that belongs to no particular time or place, but for the moment at least, they look very happy in south London.
To 28 Sep. For opening times call 0181-693 5254
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