Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
V.L. Cox is not creating art that makes you do mental calisthenics to get its meaning, to work for the rush of the aha! moment. Her media — old steeples, barbed wire, a Klan robe, a black crow — is front-loaded with content: religion, pain, hatred, discrimination. She has purposely made the work in "A Murder of Crows," now on exhibit at New Deal Studios and Gallery at 2003 Louisiana St., instantly accessible: There is no time to waste to counter the racism, once relegated to rural areas like her native Clark County, that is now becoming so distressingly expressed everywhere. She wants to counter the bombardment of misinformation — from what she says is a new journalism that is motivated by profit, and goads, rather than informs, the viewer — with simple truth.
So her "Stained" piece — an American flag constructed of pages of the Bible made into tea bags — is no head-scratcher. It's about how tea party dogma runs counter to brotherly love. She started at the bottom with tea bags (containing real tea) she fashioned from the pages of Leviticus; in all, she used an entire Bible and part of a second to create the 606 stained bags.
Some of Cox's work is enriched by the narrative. "Soles," created from an 1896 arched church dormer that she's drilled holes into to make it resemble a Klan hood, a noose and a pair of shoes. She was told growing up in Arkadelphia that when Klansmen came to church in their hoods and robes, you could still recognize who they were by their hands and shoes. Her great-grandfather, in fact, had been tied and horse-whipped by a Klan gang after being falsely accused by a man who was sour over a horse sale. Her great-grandfather wasn't killed — he was white — but he nearly was. He later recognized on his cousin a pair of shoes that one of the Klansman involved in his whipping had worn, and never spoke to the cousin again.
She's also drilled eyeholes into the wooden pickets she's whitewashed, wrapped in barbed wire and made into a broken-down fence ("Whitewash"). She was inspired by a gate surrounded by Confederate flags; it was outside Harrison. The gate, she says, "is the entrance into the dark world of white supremacy."
A Klan robe, paired with an old can of Puritan Cleaner, speaks for itself: It is real, purchased by Cox from an antique dealer outside Arkansas, and is stained with what appears to be blood. Its collar is stitched with the name of the robe's owner — Wallis — as if it were the gear of a child going off to sleepaway camp.
One of the works in the gallery was inspired by a story Cox read in the Arkansas Times, about a gay man who had to disinter his deceased partner from his grave in Baxter County because of threats against the grave; even the man who moved the monument was threatened with a Bowie knife-wielding man who asked "why he had that faggot's headstone in the back of his truck." "No Vacancy" is made of a metal steeple Cox got from an old Delta church and is combined with a cross of her own construction. On the horizontal arm of the cross is plastic tubing made to look like neon tubing; it reads "NO VACANCY" and the "NO" is blinking red, thanks to a strobe light Cox has built into the back of the cross. Reading vertically on the cross is the word "ACCEPTANCE." You don't need an art expert to tell you what the piece is about: Its strength is in its fine construction, its play on a motel sign and its in-your-face nature.
There is humor in the exhibit, too: In "Ready, Aim, Fire, Brimstone" Cox has taken a 1939 Coca-Cola cooler lid someone used for target practice and inserted a Bible into it, as if it had been shot in. The work "represents how careless, reckless and forceful the Bible can be thrown around these days here in the South. At times, it's as casual as shooting a sign as you drive by it, or hitting the sign with a beer bottle."
Cox is astonished by the rise of blatant racism she sees today; she says "it's becoming acceptable." There is nothing wrong with being politically correct, she would remind people: The intention is to avoid hurting others. "You don't get a free pass because you want to be an asshole," she said.
There are 15 works in the show, including the "End Hate" door installation that Cox has shown on the mall in Washington, D.C., and in front of the state Capitol, among other places. It was the first work in the collection she's now calling "A Murder of Crows" (the name of a flock of crows, as well as making reference to Jim Crow). Cox hopes to take the full exhibition on the road as well, and is seeking sponsors.
The work is the first art exhibit in the handsome New Deal Studios and Gallery, in a woodworking and metalworking cooperative created two years ago by John Hardy and Lee Weber. They took the building, which appears to be 19th century and which most recently housed a printing business, back to its original brick walls and put in new wood flooring with a platform to serve as a stage of sorts. Arkansas Symphony Orchestra pianist Tatiana Roitman and cellist Aaron Ludwig performed in the space recently.
The show will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays; Saturday hours may be longer. You can call Cox at 501-786-1382 to arrange a private showing.
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