Chandra Cox says she paints like a printmaker, fitting together interlocking sections of color, with the work laid down flat. But you could also say she paints like a sculptor. The recent works in her current show at the Durham Art Guild all have such a physicality that they almost seem built rather than imaged--and in fact bear some relation to the sculpted paintings of her colleague at the N.C. State University School of Design, Lope Max Diaz. Unlike Diaz, though, who literally fits stone and wood sections into his shaped canvasses, Cox creates illusive joinery. Working in acrylic on canvas or panel, she layers shapes, colors, patterns, textures and symbols into a dense architecture of meaning.
Artists have always found it necessary to develop personal visual vocabularies, but during the last 50 years or so, the possible range of those vocabularies has expanded hugely. With feminism, for example, came new languages for women's experiences, and with the civil rights and black power movements came more and more visual exploration by African-American artists of their African sources, as well as their American ones. In the last year, we have had several opportunities to view some fine examples of this trend, which is still gathering power. Recall the marvelous Transatlantic Dialogue exhibition at the Ackland, and Juan Logan's recent shows in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Cox is digging in this same rich vein.
In her artist's statement Cox refers to poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar's "We Wear the Masks," noting that the development of a "masked" persona has been a survival tactic for many African Americans in their dealings with white people. That kind of masking can form a safety zone, but it is a barrier to understanding nonetheless, unlike the great masks of many African cultures, that are designed to convey truths. Cox is not particularly forthcoming in conversation, but she shows what matters to her. Just as feminist art brought a heightened cultural consciousness of women's reality, so the new African-American art offers society at large a way to increase our understanding of black reality.
With her series of slender vertical paintings, Cox has made variations on an image of the Door of No Return--the dreaded last stop on Africa's west coast before the newly captured people were loaded into the hellish ships bound for the slave markets of the Americas. For Cox, that infamous door marks both an end and a beginning. An African American can never return "home," she says, for the cultural links were unraveled when the shackles of slavery were snapped on. The Door of No Return is also the Door of Entry, for Africans passing through it became a new people. But now at last, after nearly 400 years, the cultural ties between black Americans and their African ancestral homelands are being re-knitted. Artists like Cox who--although they could not go "home" to Africa anymore than I could go "home" to Ireland--are laying claim to the rich visual heritage of their African forbears.
In her "I Remember Where I Come From" panels, each in the slotted door-like form that also has characteristics of an altar, and of the human body, Cox encrusts the surfaces with African forms and symbols, derived from textiles, masks, sculptures, Ashanti gold weights and the marvelous visual code of adinkra symbols. Ranked along one long wall, each one refers to a particular African people: Dogon, Yoruba, Ashanti, Asanti, Hausa--except for the last one, entitled "I Remember Where I Come From: Da Belly." Ah yes. Another Door of No Return. This is serious work, but not humorless.
In addition to this series and some topical, slightly dogmatic, works like "Middle Passage" and "Reparations: 40 Acres and a Mule," both composed of densely layered geometric patterns, there are two lyrical images. "Sankofa" has a joyous quality, like a Romare Bearden collage. Pattern laps over pattern over pattern, with graceful, vital shapes dancing on top of them all. "Remembrance: Letter to My Father" is a picture poem, and perhaps the best painting in the show. Its beautifully drawn images float in a glowing ether of copperish paint, and as with a verbal poem, you can't say just what it is all about, but you feel exactly how it means. Although one of its images is that of a mask, it is a mask of masquerade, revealing meaning more than concealing form. This painting hides nothing from anyone who cares to look.