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Memory Laps



I've never actually met Matthew Cox, and perhaps it's just as well. A Texas native and occasional resident of New Orleans and Philadelphia, Cox is a painterly chameleon whose published comments to art writers have alluded to various influences ranging from the avatars of the Italian Renaissance to the quirky psychological edginess of Lucien Freud, the London master of brutally frank portraiture. And if they all reflect occasional kernels of truth, they might also add up to a smorgasbord of red herrings, because none seems to lead to any of those "Ah ha!" moments of revelation in which the direction of Cox's brush finally becomes clear. Fortunately, the art world, unlike commercial aviation, has no control tower that clears artists to take off or land.

That is fortunate, considering the peculiar flights of fancy that Cox is known for. In this show, that means laps -- the anatomical variety, not the ethnic Lapp nomads of Scandinavia. Lap-sitting is a behavior ordinarily associated with intimacy, classically in the form of children sitting on the laps of parents or adult relatives, and also among adults involved in amorous or affectionate relationships. Typically, women sit on the laps of men and not vice-versa, although lap-sitting of any sort seems to diminish with age.

Perhaps predictably, Cox upends our expectations in a series of untitled paintings. In one, a snowy-haired matron settled in a comfortable chair finds her lap warmed by the elderly gentleman who is sitting on it, and whose stooped, lanky form appears articulated into the shape of a question mark. Both sport enigmatic smiles, and we can only wonder what they're thinking. In another, a rangy, lanky woman sits on the lap of a plumper woman perched primly on an equally commodious sofa. In yet another, it's a plump, middle-aged man who sits with an older, spinsterish woman perched on one of his ample thighs while another, much curvier woman with her back to us, occupies the other. In what suggests an inscrutable sort of allegory, the man gazes affectionately at the crone, who just sits there as if lost in a catatonic trance. But what I found noteworthy about these scenes is how all of Cox's subjects somehow look related to -- of all people -- the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, and his wife Caitlin (who looked somewhat like him). As we gaze at Cox's figures, it is easy to imagine what the poet's relatives in various sizes and shapes must have looked like. In another of his presumably explicatory, if wildly varied, allusions, Cox mentioned being inspired by eastern Europeans, which only made me wonder if Dylan Thomas had any Polish cousins in Milwaukee.

That curious, almost familial resemblance extends to the figures in another series of paintings called Illustrated Sentences. Here, in lieu of titles, each features a narrative snippet of text, so three views of a sweetly horse-faced airline stewardess are captioned with something about a jury deliberating the fate of a kleptomaniac flight attendant. In another, a view of a slightly self-righteous looking beauty pageant contestant is accompanied by the caption: "So pageant duties fell to the first runner up. Arson, the panel concluded, could not be aligned with a platform of global peace." Here, as in the lap-sitter series, the overall realism and coolly psychological resonance does, in fact, provide some basis for comparisons with Lucien Freud, but any such resemblance is superficial, having to do with the frosty tone of the figures themselves, which for Freud becomes a brutally stark incisiveness, but which in Cox's work becomes a kind of caricature.

That much is obvious in the drawings, continuations of his Illustrated Sentences series, that are clearly caricaturish yet often beautifully executed, harking to the great American draftsmen of an earlier time, masters such as Reginald Marsh and Paul Cadmus; especially Cadmus, whose expressive flair is reprised in a drawing of some ecstatically woozy looking diners at a restaurant and in a related image of two women and a child having a picnic in the wild, captioned: "Liesel had raised five children on wild mushroom proceeds and thin mountain air ... " Theatrical and convoluted, Cox's figures are like characters in a play directed by an artist for whom all the world's a stage.

Painter Matthew Cox depicts improbable situations as a way - of exploring his subjects' quirky character traits.
  • Painter Matthew Cox depicts improbable situations as a way of exploring his subjects' quirky character traits.

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