Stephen Cox's Journey
While other British sculptors thrive on the possibilities suggested by the found object,
whether scavenged or purchased, Stephen Cox insists on meeting the ancient challenge of
cutting into stone, marble and granite. New materials and alternative ways of working
abound in sculptural innovation today, often to the point where 'sculpture' no longer
seems an appropriate term. Indeed, the organisers of the 'Moteriol Culture' exhibition at the
Hayward Gallery asserted that 'the word has recently expanded its meaning so far as to
become almost meaningless.' Cox, on the other hand, is defiant enough to place the idea of
working stone at the very centre of his concerns. And he claims the right to roam through
the history of sculpture at will, discovering nourishment in a heady array of disparate
sources. No era is too distant for him to rule out the prospect of finding inspiration there.
Whether the culture he explores with such commitment originates in the East or the West,
he perpetually renews himself by remaining open to even the most unexpected stimuli
across the world.
Not that Cox's restless journeying arises from a blinkered determination to ignore the experimental energy of twentieth-century sculpture. His earliest work, produced soon after leaving the Central school of Art in 1968, is characterised by its alert, questioning awareness of the modernist legacy. The plasterboard pieces which first established his reputation during the 1997’s derived above all from American minimalism. But they were distinctive in their reaction to the work of Andre and Judd. Despite their often monumental dimensions, they pointed away from a materialist assertion of bulk. Their shimmering surfaces, derived in the latter half of the decade from a combination of silver sand and lime, possessed a disembodied purity that ran counter to the American sculptors' assertion of physical substance. in this respect he felt far closer to abstract painting, and in particular the work of Newman, Reinhardt and Rothko with their profound spiritual resonance.
Cox was already asserting a powerful need to charge his work with an intense religious significance. Without in any way associating himself with doctrinal faith, he wanted to signal his governing belief in art as metaphor, a means of exploring a realm beyond quotidian reality. For all their purity, the finest of these plasterboard pieces implied a desire to be transported from everyday experience towards a heightened, even ecstatic state of consciousness. They also hovered halfway between painting and sculpture, acknowledging both and yet referring at the same time to the condition of architecture. In short, they manifested a desire to transcend conventional categories and resist the twentieth-century obsession with narrow specialisation. Cox had not yet succumbed to the lure of the Mediterranean.
But he must have sensed inside himself a growing fascination with the Renaissance ability
to move, without a sense of strain, between branches of the visual arts which subsequently
became separated from each other.
By t919, Italy had assumed such an overriding importance in his mind that he decided to leave England and work there. The effect on his work was dramatic. Initially drawn to the art of the quattrocento, he discovered Agostino di Duccio's carvings in the Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini through the writings of Adrian Stokes. Impassioned and at the same time densely informed, Stokes's essays extolled not only quattrocento carvers but the geological evolution of the stones they transformed. His ardent prose convinced Cox that the Mediterranean is the womb of my civilisation, a limestone basin whose crustacea have accumulated and been thrust up to form mountains.'He began to meditate on sculptural tradition rather than concentrating on the specific legacy of post-war American abstraction. And far from continuing to work in plaster, a medium historically associated with modelling, he turned his attention to carving in stone.
A similar commitment informed the pioneers who had revolutionised British sculpture earlier in the twentieth century. Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska. Moore and Hepworth were all fired by the challenge of 'carving direct', respecting the identity of the block so that it helped to dictate the form assumed by the finished work. Just as they had once honoured the idea of 'truth to materials', so Cox accepted the life inherent in the stone or marble. The rappon he developed with his chosen medium proved energising, releasing him from the restraint that prevailed in the previous decade. With hindsight, we can see that the extreme purism he favoured during the r97os became the springboard for a gradual enrichment of his initial sculptural standpoint. Colour, which had played such a bleached and reticent part in the freestanding plaster walls, was now allowed an increasingly varied and resplendent role. Figurative imagery, excluded from the smooth and inviolate blankness of his early work, began to appear in sculpture that no longer adhered to thoroughgoing abstraction. And manual mark-making, in the form of delicately carved incisions, lent an element of individual 'hand-writing' to the work he produced.
The outcome was far removed from the preoccupations of the young British sculptors who emerged at the beginning of the r98os. Cox displayed no interest in salvaging the plastic detritus that played so prominent a part in Tony Cragg's work. Nor did he follow the direction pursued by Bill Woodrow, who incorporated the battered and discarded products of urban life in his deliberately raw assemblages. Compared with them, and other sculptors of their generation impelled by the belief that virtually anything could now be regarded as legitimate material, Cox's adherence to stone carving seemed the manifestation of an obstinate attachment to the past.
His fascination with the quattrocento even marked him out from the earlier practitioners of 'carving direct.' For Epstein and Moore had both, at their most rebellious, turned away from the Renaissance in search of other, more 'barbaric' alternatives. Determined to reject the nineteenth century's veneration of the Greco-Roman tradition, they found fresh energy in African, Oceanic and ancient Mexican art. Epstein's collection of so-called 'primitive' carvings became renowned, and Gaudier's polemical 'Vortex' credo in the Vorticist magazine Blast dismissed quattrocento sculpture as 'solid excrements.' Although Cox shared the desire to regain contactwith directways of tackling the stone, he found the early Renaissance liberating rather than oppressive. Quattrocento carvers working with flat surfaces had a special significance for him, and the first work he produced under the overt influence of Italy could hardly be accused of historical pastiche.
Concentrating for the moment on the tondo form, which attracted him because its circularity seemed universal, he restricted himself at first to carvings as simplified as Tondo: Beyond. Its fossil-like character reflected Cox's desire to evoke a sense of the primordial. The stone used in Tondo: Beyond comes from the Forest of Dean, and may help to account for the sculpture's relative sobriety. Within a year, though, Vasari's writings helped him turn his attention to materials quarried in Italy itself. Their impact on his work was unmistakeable. The title of We Must , lwoys Tum South, an answer to the rhetoricai question posed by Stokes at the end of his essay'The Qucttro Cento'passionately affirms Cox's willingness to immerse himself in Mediterranean inspiration. The swollen oval carved on its surface does not try to ape Renaissance precedent. But as in so many of his Italian works, the colour emblazoning on this lump of St Ambrogio di Verona marble is, within self-imposed limits, surprisingly sumptuous. It is redolent of a glowing copper sun, an image reinforced by the flame-like fingers leaping towards its upper edge.
Although Donatello, Luca della Robbia and Ghiberti were important to Cox at this stage, he owed Agostino a special debt. Alberti, the architect of the Tempio at Rimini, had after all been saluted in the titles of a marble relief series as early as 1977. And the carvings Agostino produced for the temple provided particular inspiration for some of Cox's carvings in the early r98os. Tondo Nuvole, with its evocation of the clouds cut with such economy in an Agostino relief, can be seen as a homage to the quattrocento artist's understanding of how the 'vaults of Heaven' appear. But the fragmentation of Tondo Nuvole, ensuring that the marble seems to have been shattered either by accident or some titanic blow, is prophetic of Cox's subsequent development. So is the dynamic movement imparted to the carving by the fissures running through it like seismic fault-lines.
Fragmentation, enabling him to arrange several 'broken' pieces in an ensemble that never quite adds up to a 'complete' sculpture, recurs in his work. Although many of Cox's reliefs have the appearance of archeological remains. They call to mind Eliot's insistence, in The Woste Lcnd, that
"You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water."
This tantalising lack of wholeness surely reflects a belief, on the sculptor's pafi, that the civilisations nourishing his work will always remain paftially beyond recall, mysterious and unattainable. The possibility of completion may be suggested by the fifteen irregular pieces of Peperino stone comprising Gethsemone, especially in the overarching lines of a celestial canopy running round its upper edge. But each fragment of the sculpture comes from a different piece of stone. They would be impossible ever to unite, and this realisation engenders a sense of Eliot-like melancholy. However vigorously Cox enters into his own meditations on the past, he knows that it is in the last analysis irrecoverable.
That is why his work could never be confused with the sculpture he regards as his starting-point. Cox has travelled widely enough to appreciate just how much art from the past has ended up as ignominiously as Saint Sebastian. Although his martyred body was recovered after Diocletian's archers had riddled it with arrows, it was afterwards hacked to pieces and hurled into the Roman sewer. Cox's carving Clooco Moximo presents the butchered saint as a scattering of anatomical shards. They reinforce the brutality of his death, and at the same time restore to the grievously degraded figure a semblance of his sensuous, gleaming presence.
Even when dealing with violence of the most callous kind, Cox is not afraid to admit an erotic dimension. Italy enabled him to release in his art the sexual element that English Protestantism had previously repressed. It reaches extravagant expression in another martyrdom carving, the Ecstosy: St Agotho, a three-part sculpture where he twists Rosso di Verona marble into shoulders, buttocks and breasts. The bravura drapery swirling around her is animated by a Baroque flamboyance worthy of Bernini. At first glance, this unbridled work seems far removed from the quattrocento. But Stokes argued that Agostino at his most uninhibited appears to prepare the way for the Baroque's rhapsodic virtuosity.
Nothing quite so brazenly erogenous had been seen in British sculpture since Eric Gill's
most heated carvings. In his case, the urge to fuse spirituality and sexuality, the sacred with
the profane, was spured by his study of Indian art. In r9r r , at a time when most British
sculptors were still dominated by classical influences, he declared that 'the best route to
Heaven is via Elephanta, and Elura [sic] and Ajanta.'Gill's enthusiasm for Indian artists'ability
to convey divine conviction in the most sexually ecstatic manner encouraged him to carve a
relief of a copulating couple. He knew it was impossible to exhibit the result in England, but
the sculpture would have looked remarkably at home on the facade of an Indian temple.
Ever since the young Cox chose a book about Indian sculpture as a school prize, he had nurtured a wish to see the art of the subcontinent for himself. He even wonders now if his father's wartime service in Bombay as a naval petty officer had a genetic influence. At all events, when the British Council invited him to represent his country at the Sixth Indian Triennale in 1985, he seized the opportunity to study its great caruing tradition at first hand. It was a revelation. The influence that Italy had exerted on his work was broken - or rather, replaced by a growing interest in cultural interaction and exchange. Cox's Italian sojourn had made him increasingly aware of how ancient civilisations impacted on each other. In this respect, it is significant that one of the first carvings he made in India dealt with the theme of overlapping cultures.
The starting-point for Etruscan was a medieval palazzo in Viterbo, where Cox found himself mesmerised by two eyes staring from a shield high on the wall. Their extraordinary forcefulness prompted him to plan, as an Indian project, a carrying concentrated on the organs of the senses. In Etrusccn, and its far larger successor produced the following year, eyes, nose, ears and mouth are successively singled out. The row of four faces is cut from Black Indian granite, but Cox has focused attention on particular organs by the application of oil. It turned the pinpointed area of grey stone almost black. The act of pouring also signified his growing desire to see sculpture not simply as an object scrutinised from afar, but something touched, grasped and even prepared, through libation, for a role in rituals. The more he stayed in India, the more Cox found himself fascinated by the national custom of handling and washing carvings of deities. He liked the idea of feeding and dressing his own sculpture as well - not because he wanted it to assume the status enjoyed by idols in the temple, but more out of a desire to see stone as a fundamental element in everyday life. He was equally impressed by the way Indians employ granite for the simplest and most functional of domestic implements. Watching these pestles, mortars and rolling pins in use reminded him of Stokes's eloquent passage in 'Rough cnd Smooth', describing how the incessant action of hands and feet on banisters and pavements ended up as an instinctive form of sculpture.
The idea initially explored in Etruscon continued to intrigue him. By focusing on the organs of the senses, Cox hoped to heighten our awareness of how we habitually understand our place in the universe swirling around us. The Tonmotrcs [Tanmatras within Samkhaya Philosophy, deals with the subtle elements which identify smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing with their corresponding elements earth, water, fire, air and ether.] carvings seek to concentrate attention on this process, using the notion of fragmentation as a paradoxical way of leading us towards a sense of totality. Hinduism harbours similar ambitions, as Cox soon began to realise. He warmed to the notion of developing 'a conceptual understanding of things beyond one's own place in the cosmos.' The emphasis on fragmentation reminded him of certain aspects of minimal and conceptual art. So the Tonmatros series attempted to bring about a fusion of contemporary western thought and historic eastern belief.
Orgons of Action [organs of Action within Samkhaya Philosophy, the gross elements: speach, procreation, evacuation, grasp and gait deal with Man's physical characteristics] is among the most monumental manifestations of this ambition. As well as developing the idea originated in Etruscon. it was stimulated by an old translation of the Bhogovodgito with its diagram of sense-isolation. Indian culture identifies five elements rather than four, and links them with the five senses. It associates the fifth element, ether, with hearing. By including it in orgons of Action, he hoped to bring about a synthesis that sharpens our perception of the universe.
Since Cox has always harboured sffong architectural aspirations, he was bound to find the unity between Indian sculpture and architecture intensely rewarding. He discovered that the temple was regarded as a metaphor for the mountain, and several leading modern sculptors in Britain have seen their own aspirations in a similar light.' I want to carve mountains' Epstein told his patron John Quinn in 1912, only two years before Gaudier proclaimed that sculptural energy is the mountain.'Moore subsequently advanced the same notion, as well as deploring modern architects' tendency to force sculpture into a subordinate position. Cox would undoubtedly agree. Hence his admiration for the Indian insistence on an integral role for sculpture in temples. It is no accident that many of his Italian works contain references to ruined buildings, and one of his largest Indian carvings is entitled Thousond Pillored Holl.
Although it recalls the awesomeness of Anselm Kiefer's empty and dilapidated Third
Reich buildings, this imposing sculpture is too lyrical to yie with the brooding moilification of the German's paintings. Using rubbed ochre, faded maroon and rust colours as a
means of conjuring up a patina, Cox brings together the resources of painting and sculpture
in Thousond Pillored Holl to pay homage to the inspiration of architecture. No people can be
discerned among the columns, plentifully embellished with figures in relief. But a woman
strides away from the hall at one side, and her presence is counterbalanced at the other end
by a blank slab of granite. It has a latent power of its own, recalling Cox's awareness that in
'rock-cut' temples a space is hewn out of the mountain. He makes a direct reference to this
inner dimension in Rock Cut: Holy Fomily, where the entire central area is given over to an
Indian devotional group. The possibility that Cox's carving might itself have been excavated, or uncovered in an archeological dig, is strengthened by the rough-hewn boulders surrounding the group.
Cox relishes working in India, and continues to spend a considerable amount of time there. He likens himself to a lizard, carving on the Bay of Bengal where the sun rises over the sea every morning and only laying down his chiseis when it sets on the other side of the peninsula. He feels spiritually regenerated there, and buoyed up too by the realisation that in the small town of Mahabalipuram, south of Madras, highly skilled craftsmen still uphold the tradition of carving for temples even today.
AII the same, he remains an inveterate roamer. Sometimes he suspects that his childhood in Bristol, formerly a renowned centre for England's great Merchant Venturers, somehow instilled in him the wanderlust. At any rate, he was delighted when the Foreign Office invited him, in 1989, to visit Egypt and make a sculpture for Cairo's new opera house. Epstein once declared that 'in Egypt can be found the perfect example of the alliance between sculpture and architecture.'Cox clearly venerates it as well. While missing the sense of a continuing tradition found in India, he savours the skill and camaraderie of the Egyptian quarrymen who work the stone. Moreover, his previous study of Alberti's writings had alerted him to the mystery of imperial porphyry.
Unlike Italian marble, porphyry daunted Renaissance artists with its intractable hardness. Cox regarded it as a challenge, and embarked as an act of faith on an expedition across the desert to visit the quarry at Mons Porphyrites in the Eastern Mountains. There, at this former remote outpost of the Roman Empire, the porphyry reserved exclusively for the Emperor's use confronted him. Cox was profoundly moved by the encounter, and even more excited when his Opera House commission granted him the high privilege of access to the quarry for his own work. In Chrysalis, one of the most impressive results of his engagement with imperial porphyry, he manages to hint at the new life struggling to emerge from the block It may seem unfinished, for Cox has left the marks made by Roman cutters who roughed out the stone in the Emperor's quarry over 2,ooo years ago. But there is nothing unresolved about It presents the intensely dramatic spectacle of metamorphosis, of the image growing out of the primal rock. Cox regards Michelangelo's supposedly unfinished last carving, the Rondonini Pieto. as the most complete of all his works. In the same way, the tension in Chrysalis between highly polished refinement and broken, almost inchoate vestiges of the past is central to the work's meaning.
Even so, it remains a deeply ambiguous work. The promise of new life is countered by the possibility that death might prevail. Despite its title, Chrysalis is reminiscent of the sepulchre. In this respect, it has a kinship with Interior Space, a fifteen-ton tour de force sliced from a boulder of Hammamat Breccia. Sculpture here aspires to the condition of architecture more openly than anywhere else in Cox's work. Inspired by a visit to the tombs of the Apis bulls near the great stepped pyramid of Sakkara, where the sacred animals were given ceremonial burlals worthy of a pharaoh, this gleaming structure appears to offer an invitation. The thin oblong cut from its front lies on the floor like a pathway. But access is denied: the narrowness of the aperture frustrates any attempt to penetrate the interior. We are left circumambulating the exterior, noticing how the rectangular finality of the main block contrasts with the irregularity of the broken stone above. However thwarted we may feel by our inability to enter this brooding, enigmatic mass, it is easy to imagine that the darkness within once provided a resting-place for bound recumbent corpses. At Dulwich, Interior Space's felicitous proximity to Soane's Mausoleum accentuates its resemblance to a chamber of death.
No essay on Cox's art should conclude on a funereal note, however. The truth is that his incessant journeying has been an overwhelmingly positive and resourceful affair, conducted in a generous spirit of multi-cultural affirmation. Wherever in the world he elects to work, the outcome at its finest is always reassuring. By reaching back to the very origins of sculptural expression, and reinterpreting that impulse according to his own contemporary imperatives, he endows his art with a feeling of serenity, poise and immemorial wisdom.