Craig Cox at Satis House

Satis House is a “school of missing studies” (with apologies to Bik Van der Pol, see www.bikvanderpol.net) that provides for both an  artist and a viewer a learning space for important competencies to deal with ideas. In some way it is  analogous to the role of early medieval art as biblia pauperum, without the attendant indoctrination. In that it leans towards the kingdom of freedom favoured by J C Friedrich Schiller (1788 – 1805), suggested gently even by the announcement on their leaflet: Satis House presents Craig Cox…a term not familiar from museums and galleries. Nice touch.

Craig Cox installed two of his works in an exhibition called Autonomies (18 January – 2 February, 2013). In a smaller room, bed and wardrobe turning it onto a bedroom, on a workbench a dog toy moves forward and back in front of the mirror. The low lighting decreases the visibility, foregrounding  both the shifting noise and recognition of the dog’s head in the mirror.  Relentless monotony jarred with the attractiveness of the animal toy. Cox calls it Nanny State.

The larger room was elaborately transformed into a greenhouse / shed, with one wilted plant under a sort of light / heater, and, opposite the covered windows, a selection of gardening tools attached to the wall above a workbench with a vice, work gloves, and a small watering can. Gardening. Idle gardener. Missing gardener. Its subdued tone notwithstanding, the wall bound installation exerted a strong pull through its composition. The relationship of the horizontal workbench and vertical wall with three  tools and light above them, immediately associates with a mensa and altarpiece favoured in medieval art. The link increased by the still life of the gardening tools in the form of an arch with the strip light above, as if in an apex of the curve. A strategy known from numerous western panel paintings of deity enthroned, like this one  I took from an excellent  documentation of the Ghent’s Altarpiece  on http://www.closertovaneyck.kikrpa.be.

It is a generous example of art that raises important questions that a viewer cannot shake off. Cox also embraced a nuanced dual passionately felt concern about being in the world. On one hand he celebrates tools, and in turn the idea of Homo Faber, on the other,  sadness for what is lost, not cared for. At the core of his  Learned Helpfulness,  part of which  forms the bench / tools / light “still life”, is the gardener.

Norman Wirzba, a research professor in theology, recently  drew my attention to one of the first stories in the bible: god is the first, best and  the eternal gardener. He notes that he never heard a preacher  say that the day god ceases to garden, is the day we all perish. The culture, which so readily idealises the images of  its god to look like the aristocracy of the day, ignores that,  after all, Adam is made from adamah – soil. Even the English  words human and humus are not complete strangers to each other. The biblical story claims that  all plants and animals are created from the soil, only Eve is not fashioned from the dirt. Gardening  became a metaphor for nurturing the multiple forms of life. Our refusal to care deeply about them yielded degraded eroded soils, poisoned waters, diminishing forests and woods and wetlands, the loss of species.

Cox issues a call to come to our senses, seeing (dimmed light), touching (gloves, wooden surface of the bench), smelling (the plant), hearing. The last, a recorded conversation between two female voices, diminishes the strength of the rest, by aggressively commanding attention,  and thus fractioning, diminishing the contemplative quality of what I think of as a still life representing the gardener, the carer.  On visiting his beautifully designed and helpful  website, www.craigcoxart.com, I recognised that an earlier work, also dealing with loss of autonomy, may have wrestled in on the Learned Helpfulness, which Cox described so:

Learned Helpfulness is an installation that examines manifestations of morality and caring in common Irish society. It discusses responsibility and its deference resulting from social hierarchies of intervention and the sensation of being observed. Layers of possible engagement are presented to the visitor, asking them to consider the culpability of spectatorship. Surreal theatrics and radio are used to create a sense of other-worldliness to the common place so as to enable analysis, as well as suggesting an insidious undercurrent to common notions of caring and emphasizing a view of behaviour as performative.

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