Peter Cox represents the persistence and vitality of American realism, not that of the academy or the illustrators, but the school that finds little along the cutting edge of much use and much from the past, from the academy, from the great artists, still valid. Only rarely does this work appear upon the scene, usually isolated in one academy or another, taught and re-taught, and ignored in SoHo or Chelsea. Realist galleries are assumed to be quaint; the realist painter obsolete. And mostly SoHo and Chelsea are correct just as those who find most new and spectacular work, video art or monochromes or installation trendy and ephemeral if not bad, usually bad.
Still there is a realist tradition that attracts. It find painters, ambitious students, generates an audience not unaware of the verities, appears in galleries seldom visited, sells and is shown; it exists in a parallel universe.
And Peter Cox paints in this universe -one he assumes as real and as valid as that displayed at the Whitney Biennial. And realist painting like works composed of recycled television sets can be judged as well if not as easily compared. Cox is a romantic realist, one who displays his predilections not only in subject but also in treatment, the complexities of brush work, the degrees of difficulty that his peer's will judge. He reveals a skill of hand at hard subjects - the subject is there on the canvas, found in model or imagination: flesh to be painted, bodies twisted, dogs and perspective and floating objects all lavishly and lovingly rendered, work for now, for our times, if not for the scene. The work has bravado: See what I can do! Watch my brush touch here and there! Look at this, look at me! And so much is stuffed into each painting, so many tricks and wiles and so much romance.
Cox loves paint, loves what it can do; he loves to shock and amaze and stuff each canvas full. In an earlier work, CONSPIRATORS, 1985, his brush was cooler, his treatment less baroque, his subjects simpler and his ambitions, quite realized, less. Now he has flowered and flourished, and generated all these crammed canvases. And if the subject matter is supposedly an ironic and often unpleasant comment on our time, the reality of the work is Cox's treatment and his skill. For that at the end of the day is what is offered: late romantic work that relies on craft and the narrative of the subject. The singularity of vision and the intensity of image is actually rather conventional for a romantic realist who choses to ignore the times is apt to be integrated into convention, into values and an agenda well used - used perhaps to advantage, but always lacking the shock of recognition brought by the new.
Cox probably does not care too much for the new, these times, those who paint with sticks and stones. He is content to wage his war on the old battleground with the old weapons even if the same victories are won and lost.
Here he has a victorious exhibition on his own ground, on his own terms - and who am I standing on alien ground to deny him?
Figurative art has two modes - the narrative scene and the figure study - and they are aligned to the two inner images. The two modes are comparable to the drama and the lyric in literature, and they serve similar functions. Narrative art illustrates a moment captured from an implied story, a moment in a sequence of events that is suggestive of the entirety of the story, and it invariably conveys the story as we would like to play it, the story as we would like it to turn out, the way we would prefer to recognized by others. The study is the presentation of the isolated figure. Even if the figure is presented in a setting, it is seen apart from any revealing context or story. It conveys, in the style of rendering, a conception of an autonomous human nature.
Both modes are in evidence in Figure In/Figure Out. Among the works of the pure, non-contextualized human image at M B Modern, the most impressive are those of Peter Cox, who may be the best figurative artist now working in New York. Just inside the door of the gallery are two drawings hung side by side, done in ink, pastel, charcoal, and pencil on pastel cloth: FEMALE BACK STUDY #2, 1999 and FEMALE BACK STUDY #3, 1999. They are spectacular for their precision of observation and their demonstrated mastery of drawing technique. The anatomy is flawless to a degree that is shocking, in the way the truth of something is always shocking. The outlines of the figures possess an organic vitality. The lines are themselves like living things, moving swiftly and so exactly that they specify form by their changing densities - the shifting contour of the line defines the moving surface planes of the body. (Note particularly the legs of FEMALE BACK STUDY #3.) The pastel coloring of the figures has been worked to convey the sensation of flesh. Not that the textures of the drawings visually resemble living tissue, but rather that upon confronting the developed grain of the drawings, one has the feeling of confronting actual skin. You feel a shock of recognition, the jolt that comes of recognizing a being like yourself.
These are luminous visions of the human. The shadows, done in pastel shades of red, green, aqua, and blue, seem to glow. And they are adult visions, for this is a mature art. There is a love of the figure in this work, a love of the human, but it is not a love that is composed of an attraction to sex organs and cartoon notions of passion. This is a love of crevices in flesh, of hollows and pores, of pressing masses of muscles and fat, of youth and of age, of marks of character and physiological fate. It is a lone of the human truth, the physical truth of the human, and it confronts the other person at eye level, as an equal, as the subject of the gaze and not an object, neither someone to be looked down on nor up to. These two drawings are not only studies of the human image, they are studies of what figurative art can do at its best.