The first object the viewer spots is a heart-shaped floral wreath studded with silk flowers covered in sugarlike glitter with the word "Bully" inscribed across it. Text holds a vital place in Fox's art; it is the linchpin to decoding her idea that radiant worlds often contain not-too-subtle reminders of reality's gall. The wreath is full of shimmering beauty, yet the text denies the splendor a permanent resting place.
Similarly, Fox's digital screen-prints reveal a dual world of gleaming images undermined by an uncomfortable reality. One print features a covey of blackbirds peering skyward toward a constellation of butterflies. The luminous cerulean background spreads out like a firmament. There is an ominous glow to the image, and you can almost smell the plunder that awaits the birds.
Another print details two birds convening to eviscerate a dead butterfly as a galaxy of live butterflies swirls overhead to witness the carnage. These are magically conjured worlds from which Fox manages to extract a fugitive beauty undermined by grievous reality.
Fox, a native Mississippian who lives in New Jersey, writes in her artist statement: "I am interested in beauty, but I mistrust it." The problem with a lot of artists' self-appraisals is that they rarely make much sense, and Fox is appropriately vague here. But "Fight or Flight" amplifies the tension between beauty and dread, and this is surely the rebuttal that lies embedded in Fox's own analysis.
Her tapestries are inspired by Victorian wall hangings that loved ones traditionally made from a deceased's own hair. These were funerary paeans to the departed, overt symbols of beauty and mourning. The tapestries, with their elaborate lace designs, convey an anguish that doesn't undermine their beauty as much as enhance it. One tapestry includes the text "I Know About Your Broken Heart" woven into the ornamental scheme. This eerie incantation squares up against the object's splendor.
What makes Fox's art particularly remarkable? Her overcoming of conventions, such that her pieces cease to be examples of anything and become rawly singular. There is nothing derivative here, and those creations that may owe their provenance to tradition assume something altogether unusual. There is emotion in Fox's show, albeit intermittent. It's anguished, like when you embrace a promise of happiness that you suspect is false. S
Carson Fox's exhibition, "Fight or Flight," runs through April 29 at 1708 Gallery.
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