Tuesday, June 9, 2009

ArtWord: Cedric Michael Cox Interview

I chose to open my artist interview series, ArtWord, with local artist Cedric Michael Cox, whose work directly reflects the urban space in which he lives and works. Over the Rhine is located north of Downtown Cincinnati and is probably Cincinnati's most economically diverse and certainly its most creative neighborhood. Since 2001, when OTR was at the center of a race riot that made national news, the neighborhood has been making strong strides towards a revitalization. The 19th century Italianate and Greek Revival architecture throughout Over the Rhine is immediately recognized as influential to Cox's work.

15th and Elm, 35x45 inches, acrylic mounted on unstretched canvas

1. You grew up in a suburban neighborhood where you lived within a well-defined grid of perfectly manicured lawns and lines of houses. You mention your move to OTR was the single most influential aspect of your work. The grid is still a commanding element in your paintings. Tell me more about the transformation of your work that reflect this influence.
The grid and its commanding element in my work goes back to my interest in Cubism and Italian Futurist like Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini who serve as a major influence. As a youth in grade school and in high school I remember the foreground and background in my paintings and drawings being rendered to the same level of intensity with my subjects having a very geometric quality. It wasn’t until college that I started relating to artist like Franz Marc and Fernand Leger. I fell in love with these artists because they handled their subjects the same way I thought I did. Growing up in the suburbs where everything felt and looked the same, inspired me and my misfit friends to take the bus and explore downtown where we thought we would blend in. We still were misfits but the noise and look of the city felt great. The architecture of OTR always inspired me but it wasn’t until I moved there in 2000 that I remembered what I learned in college. Paint what you know. The urban environment fueled by my love for the fragmentation of form and the city became my subject. The ruins of OTR were and still are my muse. The quick gestural graffiti tags against the brick wall patterns are a vision that repeats in my mind when I look up at the tallest buildings and in the cracks in the ground. The visual stimulation pulses in me as I walk. This is what I see and what I know.

Painting the Quilt #2, 40x57 inches, acrylic on tar paper mounted on unstretched canvas

2. You seem to draw on the aesthetics of various artistic genres. I am most intrigued by your admitted reference to quilting. I’m not familiar with many male painters who would offer a shout-out to the crafts. Your work does in fact share the analytical form of traditional quilting. Have you worked in textiles? Would you like to bring actual quilting into your paintings?
When describing my work to someone who hasn’t seen my work, words like patterns and rhythm come up. When these terms are used I tend to refer to my paintings and drawings as quilt-like. The same way shapes and colors bounce from corner to corner in a quilt can be related to the invisible line of the compositional pyramid used by the master painters like Leonardo da Vinci. Most of my work has this quilt-like quality to it because I have appropriated compositions and the use of pattern and color from contemporary fine art quilt makers. I believe patterns moving and shifting in space to make an implied or obvious connection to the viewer can be seen in “craft” like art and in fine arts. I will use whatever source I can find to fuel my paintings. My continuous mission as a visual artist is not only to create work that expands my interests, but also to find innovative ways of attracting new and inspired audiences to my work and to the arts in general. If associating my paintings with quilts helps others who never experienced abstract work like mine to understand how I create then I have made a connection. I have only made a hand full of quilts in my career and I will like to do more. I have not worked with textiles but I believe that I can learn a lot if I tried. I am open to anything that will enhance my art.

3. Your referencing and comparing musical composition to the visual is not so unusual. Many painters have spoken about their similarities. You are a musician, yes? Do you still play? Have you performed professionally?
As a musician, the similarities between a musical composition and a visual composition are apparent. A change in rhythm or pitch can be compared to a shift in line, brush stroke, gesture, and pattern. Fresh out of college with the notion of purely painting what I know, I looked to my apartment as a still life for inspiration. My apartment was filled with guitars. To this day you will find shapes and forms that echo the shapes of drums and stringed instruments in my work. Ever since I was a child I remember being fascinated with the guitar and wanting to be a rock star. I strummed my first guitar at the age of 4 and still to this day I will strum a six string while paint is drying on one of my paintings. For over seventeen years I have played bass with my friends in the band Morticite. Though we have played in front of large crowds opening up for major Heavy Metal and Punk bands and produced numerous recordings we never landed a major record deal nor did we ever care to. Like me with my career as a visual artist, the rest of the band has other passions and sources of inspiration that drive them beyond the stage and studio. Built on the love and passion we have for the music we play and the respect we share for each other the band will stay together forever.

4. When we spoke, we laughed a bit about how because you are black, many would assume your musical palette would include exclusively jazz, R&B, and rap. However this isn’t the case. Tell me more about your musical influences? How do these styles lend themselves to your paintings?
When I was an undergrad at the University of Cincinnati’s College Design, Architecture Art and Planning my instructor was Wayne Enstice. At that time I was creating a body of work inspired by the relationship between body and music. The paintings depicted anatomical structures of the internal anatomy intertwined with biomorphic imagery that resembled musical instruments. I was creating portraiture from the inside out in a surreal environment. At a critique I found it necessary to mention that my main source of musical inspiration was jazz. This was probably inspired by the fact that my instructor was not only a fan of Jazz but has written many essays on Jazz theory. I was trying to win him over. Wayne saw right through me and declared the drawings as strong but saw more rock n roll than jazz in my work. Later on Wayne ended up using one of the pieces in this series in the third edition of the college text, Drawing: Space, Form, and Expression and described the work better than I ever could. It is clear that though I like jazz, Hip Hop, and r&b music, my main drive to achieve artistic excellence is fueled by the driving sounds of Iron Maiden and other trash bands from my adolescence. I am privileged to do what I do now with paint as I did as youth with crayons. Rock ‘n’ Roll was in my blood then and it is still with me now. The music I compose for my band Morticite tends to be layered with riff after pounding riff leaving little room for crescendo or rest. Similar to my paintings I am driven to give the listener an all over compositional climax from start to finish. Walls of layered distortion with riffs intertwined in dense patterns, echoes the cubic area of my paintings.

The Drummer, 30 x 36 inches graphite on paper

5. Do you get frustrated with the aesthetic assumptions viewers place on you because of race? Combined with your interests in your urban living space in OTR, musical rhythms, and of course your race, how far away could a comparison between you and an artist like Jacob Lawrence be? Do you often feel compelled to defend your art from racial stereotypes? How does this play out specifically in Cincinnati as opposed to other cities, countries in which you’ve lived?
It depends on what the assumptions are. Most assumptions people make about African American artists is that our work is based primarily on our race and culture alone. Those assumptions don’t bother me to the point of frustration. I basically just accept it at face value. Jacob Lawrence’s work uses music, mythical folklore, and the urban environment as his palette for expression. This and the fact that we are both African American artists make us similar. Where we differ is that his music influence comes from jazz where mine comes from rock ‘n’ roll. I was always encouraged by my peers to paint what I know based on my experiences and how those experiences influence me. My art defends itself from these stereotypes. The same connections one might find with my work and other African American artist work can be made with the work of artist of non African decent. When creating my work I have no obligation to anyone but me. My goal to achieve artistic excellence is fueled by the desire to create work that reflects my interests regardless of my race. I enjoy living in Cincinnati particularly Over the Rhine. When visiting other cities and even my short time in Scotland I found that people were more intrigued by the art rather than my race.

For a more complete portfolio of Cox's work see his website.


Tina L. Hook said...

I am very interested in the exhibtion Garry Winogrand: Women Are Beautiful. I am not sure if the pictures are going to feel predatory or celebratory.

Me said...

Tina, I think you meant to place this comment with my previous post about the new exhibitions at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

I enjoy Winogrand's work, especially Women are Beautiful.

VisuaLingual said...

I really appreciate an artist who can cite Leger, Boccioni, and Iron Maiden as influences on an equal footing.

As for race, I'm glad this was brought up, because I've wondered about how it plays out in the reception and understanding of Cedric's work. It just doesn't seem overtly African American in its themes or forms, and yet it's an inherent part of who he is.