Akina Cox: A profile by Ariane Vielmetter
Akina Cox is a tall woman with a petite voice. A voice that, like her tenderly crafted collages, films and sculptures, has the tendency to (sweetly) deliver gut punches and initiate heavy-duty discourse. I remember her casually piping up that “the art market at CalArts is like sex at a Catholic school” during a heated classroom debate about whether it was justifiable to make “saleable objects” after the triumph of conceptualism. She was pointing to a developing culture of naïveté, denial and dismissal in art students’ attitudes towards the increasingly privatized and unregulated art market that they are thrust into, or barred out of, after graduating. So much information about the commercial side of the art world is unspoken or ignored in academia, which prevents many students from developing a practice that maintains agency despite market whims. Cox suggests a more proactive approach: to gather as much information as possible and use it to infiltrate and manipulate a rigid system. It’s the notion that in order to approach abstraction, you first have to understand representation, or, in order to make yourself visible, you first have to spend some of your time hiding.
Cox doesn’t really make saleable work herself. On the contrary, she almost compulsively rethinks her practice as soon as it becomes comfortable, logical, or predictable. Her work is a disappearing act – it takes as its subject the flickering space between ground and figure, phoneme and word, accident and intention, play and work. With minimal gestures and humble materials, she is able to make something out of nothing. Many of her works rehabilitate a sort of magical thinking that most adults have forgotten they’re capable of.
Take, for example, one of her newest videos, “Study for Pebble”. Four animated teeth wiggle, pause and clatter against a backdrop of black sumi ink and dismembered orange paper lips. In its finalized form, this crudely articulated mouth will recite the love letter of a pebble enamored with a human being. She told me that as a child, she would become incredibly attached to inanimate objects, sometimes to a point of feeling heartbreak when they were damaged or overwhelming guilt when they were ignored. This sensitivity towards objects resurfaces constantly in the way she handles (always with her hands) the materials she works with.
I visit her studio almost every day, since it’s just a few steps away from my own, and I watch it undergo continuous transformation. Alongside the large backdrop for her video-in-progress hang works on paper that resemble collages, but are so spare and so carefully scattered across the walls of her studio that they could almost be mistaken for bits of wallpaper. They practically fall apart against the solidity of the white wall, until you notice meticulously preserved details like the texture of hand-painted white brushstrokes on white paper, or layers of multi-colored stippling that become an undulating gradient. Her studio is full of surprises if you’re willing to believe in the transformative potency of pigment, paper, and glue. Last year, she covered the backside of her studio door with hundreds of cut and painted paper strips to commemorate a Joshua Tree that had been stripped of its flesh. Behind the closed the door, a secret nook revealed a three-tiered shelf that seated several lumpy white papier-mache sculptures. Titled “Baby 1”, “Baby 2”, “Baby 3”, and “Baby 4”, the deformed heaps sat mutely and emitted a slightly unpleasant smell of cloves and moldy wheatpaste.
Other projects have included a gallery-sized papier-mache cave, replete with colorful cave paintings that adorned the walls and indicated shadow, depth and texture. The carefully assembled newspaper and cardboard-box armature became a hideout and a performance venue, a shelter and a powwow area throughout the course of its short lifespan. A tray of white sugar-dusted mound-shaped cookies lured the curious and the brave into a warm, dark space that evoked both Plato’s cave and a comical womb. Another piece focused on animating a body-engulfing “hat” crafted out of rows of intricately braided raffia. Cox filmed herself clumsily traversing the terrain of Elysian Park wearing this unwieldy disguise, which at once camouflaged her body against the backdrop of dried grass and impeded her ability to move furtively through the landscape. The hat was not her first attempt at disguise – in her short film “Je m’appelle Nancy Drew” she enacted methods of hiding-in-plain-sight employed by the fictional teenage detective. The Nancy Drew detective novels were conceived by Edward Stratemeyer, author of the Hardy Boys series, as a way to garner sales from a largely ignored female reading base, and were ghostwritten by a handful of mostly female writers under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Cox’s piece acts out the complex interplay of narrative fiction and reality, anonymity and heroism present in the character of Nancy Drew and in the circumstances that generated one of the earliest examples of literature that catered to young women.
She has also been an active member of several Los Angeles-based artist collectives: Eternal Telethon, Elysian Park Museum of Art, and Lyeberry. All three act as playful, hand-crafted versions of large-scale institutions, and focus on exchanging and repurposing resources within local communities using little more than a colorful backdrop, a home-made municipal plaque, or a web-based campfire.
There is, in her work, a sense of calculated awkwardness that arises out of mastering the rules of a medium and then deliberately breaking them. It’s no surprise that she is drawn to the character of Nancy Drew – she is able to balance the playfulness of a child’s game with the resourcefulness and rigor of detective work in her practice. She is unafraid of disappearing, but she is also ruthless in pointing out very real social problems. She shifts in and out of visibility, sometimes revealing her hand as a maker and sometimes letting the objects speak for themselves.
Akina Cox website: http://akinaruthcox.com/home.html
Akina Cox Vimeo site: http://vimeo.com/akina
The Eternal Telethon: http://www.eternaltelethon.com/donate.php
Elysian Park Museum of Art: http://www.epmoa.org/
Ariane Vielmetter is an artist and writer working and studying in Los Angeles.