JUST ADD WATER
by David Brody 2009
Caroline Cox grew up near Sacramento never hearing jazz, never hearing of it, until she was a junior in college. Her father had learned enough about electronics to manage part of the telephone system of Northern California, but his escape from rural Arkansas at age 13 and his multiple wounds from the Pacific war had left their hardened scars. I think of these biographical traces when I see Caroline’s delicate improvisational networks. That moment when she first heard jazz is fixed in the glittering play, the escape from gravity of her scavenged industrial factors. Free Jazz, Bebop or Dixieland, it is not her father’s shiny, suburban Mitch Miller, and neither is it the Mephistophelian Jimi or Janis of 1970’s All American teenage rebellion. A recent installation that refracted light like Indra’s Web was titled after a Hendrix smash hit, and its psychedelic associations are well taken, but I maintain that Cox’s work rejects Rock ‘n Roll aesthetics. Her rhythms are not muscular but sprawling; her gestures not dramatic but incremental; her dance not Dionysian, designed to coerce and meld, but Apollonian, tuned to idiosyncratic sparkle. No, Cox’s installations seem to re-enact and fix in place that moment when another possibility, a music of cool levitation by means of collective improvisation, opened up in her world like a wormhole.
You can see in her stubborn resourcefulness, also, a reaction against (and an echo of) her father’s part in the wires and cables that would pretend to tame the raw expanse and naked fault lines of newborn California. Her webspinning is in defiance of routing logic and orthogonal grids. So is her life, for when Cox moved away from Sacramento it was still literally a cow town, even if there were outposts of funk around Davis; going downriver to San Francisco — going toward the jazz — she might have moved three thousand miles away.
Next door was New York, and since 1980 Cox has pursued her improvisational method here, which included co-running, with her husband Tim Spelios, the Brooklyn gallery Flipside. An active cog in the Williamsburg Scene, Flipside was carved from a corner of a cheerful working loft hard by the elevated BQE, with a slightly-above-the-fray view to this brute civic artery. (From Flipside its dysfunctional circadian clog, like Cox’s installations, can seem strangely zoetic.) From 1997 to 2001 Cox and Spelios exemplified the new mom and pop paradigm of self-sufficient competence, beholden to no one, under no illusions of breaking even, bravely in service to extemporaneous, experimental art. They supported the gallery by their day job labors, then worked these same skills overtime to professionalize the space. They never expected anything in return except community, which is to say Cox saw her interactions as a gallerist/curator with the artists and their work as constituting an extension of her practice. When group shows wove themselves into resonant webs of associations, it was, for Cox, a kind of meta-installation. Cox’s practice having gestated in activist San Francisco, it had never lost its collectivist instincts and implications, and the flourishing of a society of artists around Flipside’s galvanic matrix makes Cox something of a Left Coast utopian infiltrator.
Scenes don’t happen by themselves, but neither are they consummations of individual will. Likewise, Cox’s installations are “grown” from the inherent, hidden-in-plain-sight properties of the materials she gathers and puts into contact. The current project in the Humanities Gallery at LIU, Just Add Water, uses some materials new to her, namely pink plastic hair roller picks and hollow glass tubing suitable for making pipettes, along with familiar friends such as monofilament and crystal balls, to weave a typically graceful fiber-optic tissue of visual and emblematic associations. Idle thoughts may and should wobble in the parallax between lab supply, beauty supply, and magic supply; between manly fishing and girly hobbycraft; between plastic fantastic and throwaway mass junk extruded by the container shipload in some feudal, godforsaken factory town we’d rather not know about. These indexical referents, as I say, come but just as easily go. What remains is suspension; joining; transparency; light. She is selling the sizzle of neural activity, rather the steak.
Her work is painterly. She says that it assembles itself, that it is done when it verges on falling apart. Notice that this puts it in opposition to most contemporary installation, which breaks down into three prevailing genres: First, there is the art of formal arrangement, ideally gestureless, so as to make a point about some hypocrisy by virtue of the materials in play. Second, making no point writ large, some unexpected ingenuity is taken to a fantastic length. Third, there is the world of “clusterfuck,” Jerry Saltz’s unforgettable term, “an architecture of no architecture” meant to assault and overwhelm. All three are species of spectacle and thus, the bigger the better. The number of assistants required — installers — attests the artist’s status.
Cox’s hand and eye are un-delegatable of course. She uses slipknots to fix and change things on the fly. She doesn’t direct the conceptual rebus arising from her choice of materials, and she doesn’t stencil composition from above. Nor does she seed structural consequences from below by the “obsessive” repetition of one or two bits of cleverness. Text and shape inhere, but she scatters them as she scatters light, in no formalized, repeatable pattern, like the stars. Whether the constellations strike you as random, or complexly mathematical with pools of chaos surrounded by crisp physics, or a vision of some cosmic intelligence, it is the template given by the heavens. Are we not wise to pay attention? Considered in its true proportions, in relation to painting and galaxies, Cox’s scale is becomingly modest in one way, and all the more ambitious in another.