One night, standing outside the brightly lit Green Kill Gallery in Midtown Kingston, I confront a huge pair of eyes, which stare back. They peer out of the scrunched-up face of a mammoth head, drawn in black ink on a giant piece of canvas hung on the back wall. The head bulges from a thick, elongated neck attached to a humongous naked chest, and the edges of the neck and shoulders are framed by bright red strokes of paint, as if licked by flames. The Mannerist-bordering-on-grotesque phallic neck-and-head resembles a periscope, except that, far from being barely visible over the waves, the form is fully exposed. The title of David Fox’s piece, The Watcher, underlies its irony: Its nakedness and overpowering scale are exhibitionist. The figure gazes back somewhat defensively, as if we threaten him as much as he overpowers us. For all the figure’s colossal size, the roughly painted, delicately toned nuances of his naked flesh suggest vulnerability.
Fox – who grew up Irish Catholic in London and has shown in Chelsea, as well as in Berlin, London and other European cities – has an amazing facility for drawing and painting, which has the effect of effortlessly pulling us into his conjectures of Heaven and Hell. His solo show at Green Kill consists of a smattering of styles and subject matter, constituting a small sampling of his rich and varied oeuvre. The splotches and drips of four enormous ink drawings of tortured figures, taken from two series – one based on Dante’s Inferno, the other from drawings of prisoners inspired by the Iraq war and Abu Ghraib prison – suggest violence and pain, and their black-and-white coloration a graphic starkness. One standout is of a seated, blindfolded naked man threatened by a gun barrel; the dramatically foreshortened figure, supported on huge feet that intrude into the viewer’s space, conjure up the feats of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The piece was one of several that illustrated an article by Scott Horton on the Bush administration’s torture crimes in the December 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
The show also includes several of Fox’s large-scaled paintings of cathedral interiors: rough, textured depictions with a Turnerlike conjecture of the sublime. “I do recognize the spirituality of the edifice,” said Fox. “These paintings sum up my relationship to faith: a little bit raw and unfinished and full of doubt.” There’s also a self-portrait depicting his head lying on the floor, whose lack of sentimentality and profound discomfort echo the work of Lucien Freud. Fox said that the painting is from a series of 50 self-portraits in which “I put myself in contorted positions and photographed myself, a kind of performance piece.” These works related to the large-scale pieces that he’d painted based on the plays of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and other Absurdist playwrights, all of which sold. There are large paintings in red, sienna and black of mysterious, spectral robed figures ascending and descending stairs; he created small clay sculptures as a model, which served further to abstract the images, originally inspired by his observations while sitting on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London. Smaller-scaled cinematiclike scenes are done in a much tighter, realistic style, playing on the themes of voyeurism and intimacy.
Fox grew up in Wimbledon (the community of tennis fame), dropped out of school at 16 and attended a local art school before moving to London, where he studied at St. Martin’s School of Art, did plein air paintings of construction and demolition sites and got a job at a prestigious advertising agency doing Magic Marker ads. In 1981 he moved to New York City and showed his work at SR Rage Gallery, in the East Village, before earning an MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), studying under Grace Hartigan. MICA awarded him a painting fellowship, enabling him to move back to New York City and set up a studio. He and his partner moved to Brewster 20 years ago, and he teaches life drawing at SUNY-Westchester.
Drawing the figure is integral to his practice. “If you can draw the figure, you can draw anything,” Fox said. “There’s an analogy with music: If you practice scales as a musician, after a while it’s playing you. I’ve drawn the figure for 40 years, and it helps me think.” He often begins a work abstractly: “I use the old Surrealist/Dadaist technique of automatic drawing, in which you make marks and the figure emerges.
“All my work is informed by moral and ethical concerns,” he added. “I also like a joke. I’m a big comic in my personal life, but in art, irony and joke-making don’t carry well.” If he had to choose one word to describe his work, what would it be? “Spiritual.” Fox is also a poet, playwright and musician. His upcoming book, Between Heaven and Earth, which will include a CD with his songs and spoken-word pieces, is due to be published by Christmas.
David Fox solo show, Tuesday-Saturday through October 28, 3-6 p.m., Green Kill Gallery, 229 Greenkill Avenue, Kingston; (347) 689-2323.