Seriality in the Archive: Works by Jeff Kraus and Chris Cox
by Michael DeMaagd Rodriguez
Seriality in the Archive is on display at Have Company, 136 South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids, through February 28, 2016.
Mixed media works by Jeff Kraus (left), and Chris Cox (right)
Most people who maintain a creative practice will be familiar with the experience of creating an archive. Be it carefully catalogued or haphazardly hoarded, many artists, designers and makers accumulate a collection of old projects or spent ideas. Completed works, notebooks of sketches, stacks of reference materials and more than a few never-quite-finished pieces fill our closets, flat files, hard drives and storage bins. Though it is likely that much of this material may never again emerge from long-term storage, it remains precious and un-disposable. We keep it because perhaps it feels unresolved, still full with potential energy for a future use not yet known. In those few cases when the work is rediscovered and returned to creative service, the experience is affirming, as if we always knew more would come of it. Whether the archive reignites an old vision, or fuels an unanticipated new direction, its purpose is fulfilled when the work returns to life.
Jeff Kraus and Chris Cox are well known in West Michigan’s contemporary art culture. While still young in their respective fine art careers, they have each produced impressive bodies of work and have exhibited regularly in galleries throughout the region and beyond. As founding members of Gaspard Gallery, a defunct contemporary art space in Grand Rapids, both are experienced curators and art publishers. Since the closing of Gaspard in 2014, they each continue full-time art practices, Kraus from his Grand Rapids painting studio and Cox as an MFA candidate in Photography at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Such active creative careers have, not unexpectedly, generated large inventories of artwork and related process material. For Seriality in the Archive, Kraus and Cox retrieved elements from previous projects and reworked them into new considerations.
Jeff Kraus, mixed media (handmade paper, charcoal, paint), 2013.
For Kraus, revisiting older work is not an unfamiliar process. In fact, his compositions often require it. Over years of painting, Kraus has steadily created and mentally catalogued a library of idiosyncratic marks and symbols. Though he prefers to work in series, usually painting several pieces simultaneously with the same unique color palette, similar symbols reappear in artworks created years apart. The characters are raw and flexible. They may see shifts in color, scale or orientation, or perhaps distinct evolutions of layering and shape, but the source for the figures is almost invariably found in previous paintings. If we were to make Kraus’ style of painting analogous to writing a song, the most important lyrics are sung again and again, though in different combinations, and at varied tempo, key and timbre. In the end, what matters most is not what the words literally describe, but the essence of a complex emotional landscape found within the parts combined.
Jeff Kraus, mixed media (handmade paper, charcoal, paint), 2013
A new development for Kraus in this particular exhibition is how he has chosen to display his paintings. Previously, nearly all his paintings are intentionally unframed, consistent with the fast, active energy of his unbound mark-making. In these current works however, Kraus prepared clean white shadow boxes (actually inverted cradled panels) in which to float the paintings. The images on paper are several years old, first created in 2013, though they have never been exhibited before now. Their emergence from the artist’s archive and into pristine white frames successfully changes our expectations of the work entirely, without ever abandoning what has become his signature style. It is a subtle but significant demonstration that Kraus’ established patterns of fast-paced repetition can coexist comfortably alongside a newfound sense of permanence and refinement.
Cox’s photographs, on the other hand, have almost always been created and displayed with a clean and controlled aesthetic vision. Thoughtful restraint and a meticulous dedication to detail are hallmarks of his personal art practice, as well as the exhibitions and publications he produced while at Gaspard. Although visually persuasive in their own right, the fragmented images Cox created for Seriality in the Archive are that much more fascinating when we consider the more polished products of his earlier work.
Cox has long used models as the primary subjects for his photographs. Both outdoors and in the studio, he places his models, usually seen in various phases of costume or undress, in unlikely, almost ritualistic poses. Some scenes – for example, a nearly nude male with his face cloaked by his tangled shirt – could almost be read as absurd, if not for their delicate sincerity. Soft, painterly light and careful attention to color demonstrate a finely tuned photographic craft. And then, the subtle nuances of posture or expression remind us that what we are seeing is truly human. It is not difficult to believe Cox’s photographs because in them we see ourselves – a poetry of desire, doubt, transcendence and unflattering struggle, all at once. Cox is clearly skilled in technique, and well aware of the curious artist/model dynamics seen throughout art history, but his greatest strength is that he is earnest in telling a story of our contradictory human condition.
Moving as it is to view the products of Cox’s work with models, he admits that it can be a difficult practice to maintain. Scheduling and managing models can be time-consuming and inconsistent. Cox’s newest photographs, composed entirely of images reworked from his personal archive, are the result of his search for a more sustainable studio practice, one that doesn’t rely so heavily on the availability of models.
For Seriality in the Archive , Cox’s older photographs have been cut, literally deconstructed and conspicuously rebuilt. Intentional but irregular bandages of white tape hold the pieces back together, though occasionally out of order. The reconstructed images are physically collaged on the studio wall and photographed anew. The messy physicality of the elements is not concealed or over-controlled. Tape, curled paper corners, binder clips and thumbtacks are all clearly visible. The location of the process is equally prominent as Cox makes a point to display the stained studio floor as well as backdrop armatures.
In these new compositions Cox demonstrates an awareness of how most images, fine art or otherwise, are distributed and viewed in a digital age. For the most part, our visual experience is dependent on systems of pixels, duplication, digital layering, color values and manipulated scale, as well as the occasional glitch or error of omission. The exaggerated images Cox has created are products of a formal exercise, rooted more in experiment and theory than in poetry. We should consider then, are pictures of pictures reconstructed from other pictures still effective in speaking to the complex and mysterious human story? In this case, perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.
Seriality in the Archive is on display at Have Company, 136 South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids, now through February 28, 2016. Hours are Saturdays and Sundays noon – 6 pm.