Los Angeles-based artist Adrian Cox has always been a creative person, but he went for painting because of its conceptual and material aspects. However, what he really fell in love with was the medium’s possibility to tell stories and create an ever-expanding universe. Creating a world populated by hybrid beings called the Border Creatures that live in a kind of post-human utopia, Cox explores through myth the significance of the world around us, making connections to fundamental human desires and flaws.
“My practice is a constant journey of material exploration and discovery,” he tells us. Willing to continue exploring the world of these hybrid beings – and, at the same time, our own – he worked on Into the Spirit Garden, his most recent exhibition at Corey Helford gallery in Los Angeles, which picks up where his last solo exhibition, Terra Incognita, left off, offering the viewer a new chapter of the Border Creatures story. We talk with him during lockdown to deepen into his very particular world, get to know better his mythology, and wonder where will it go next.
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For those who don’t know your work yet, who is Adrian Cox and what is your background?
I’m a painter based out of Los Angeles, California, and I use my work to tell stories. Everything that I paint is part of an ongoing personal mythology that I have been crafting for the past nine years. My paintings are populated by hybrid beings that I call Border Creatures. These characters are the protagonists of my work, and their world is a kind of post-human utopia. They live in a heavily forested landscape called the Borderlands and share a symbiotic link with the natural world.
Each exhibition serves as a new chapter in their story. The lore in my paintings is fairly dense at this point, and I don’t necessarily expect viewers to follow the narrative in a linear way. Rather, I want people to sift through these scraps of myth in order to piece together something meaningful. I’m essentially asking viewers to step into the role of an archaeologist.
Your name is inevitably linked to art, but have you always considered yourself a creative person? What is the thing that attracted you the most from painting?
I’ve been a creative person all of my life, but painting is the medium that allowed me to focus my creative energy and truly commit to understanding my craft. I’m fascinated by the abstract qualities of paint. There’s poetry in the way that a single brushstroke can become infinitely suggestive, or how the transparency of paint can affect a viewer on both a psychological and optical level. For me, the conceptual and material aspects of painting are part of a continuous whole, so my approach to craft tends to evolve alongside my ideas. My practice is a constant journey of material exploration and discovery.
You are currently living and working in Los Angeles, the city where you were also presenting the Into the Spirit Garden exhibition. From your experience, what’s your opinion about the art world in the sun-drenched city and how do you think it fosters/fuels your own creativity and practice?
I moved to Los Angeles in 2018. Although I’m still fairly new to the city, I’ve found the art scene here to be truly inspiring. From small artist-run spaces to blue-chip galleries, there’s an incredible variety of work being made and exhibited here. So many cultural niches exist under the umbrella of ‘the Los Angeles art world’. In particular, I enjoy moving between high and low culture, and there seems to be a hunger for both in this city. I draw on everything for inspiration!
It’s also fantastic living in the heart of the film and music industries. Everything adds to the creative landscape of the city, and collaborative opportunities are everywhere. I recently made a tour poster for the band Tool, which allowed me to show my artwork in a radically different context. There’s an intense energy that comes from connecting to these other pockets of creative culture. It all feeds into my studio practice.
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Before the lockdown started, you were exhibiting your work in an exhibition titled Into the Spirit Garden. In relation to your previous proposals, which elements are new?
Into the Spirit Garden picks up where my last solo exhibition at Corey Helford Gallery, Terra Incognita, left off. In my last show, I introduced antagonistic spirits called Specters. The Specters terrorized the Border Creatures and burned the landscape of the Borderlands wherever they went. Terra Incognita concluded with the Border Creatures triumphing over the Specters and transforming many of them into rainbow-hued spirits. Into the Spirit Garden follows a former Specter’s quest for redemption and spiritual progression. Ultimately, this character is transfigured through the power of empathy and the bonds of community. The show also follows the remaining blue Specters as they continue their quest to conquer and destroy the world of the Border Creatures.
In the exhibition, you explore relationships between human beings, but you do it with a strong spiritual and mythological backdrop. Where does the interest in this union come from? How do mythology and spirituality inform your artistic practice as well as your personal life?
I’ve found myth to be a framework that’s endlessly adaptable. It’s a narrative structure that allows me to process and reflect on our current moment in history, while also making connections to fundamental human desires and flaws. Unlike allegorical painting, mythic painting isn’t moralizing or reductive in any way. It’s a maximalist approach to constructing meaning. This works well for me since I’ve never liked boiling my work down to any single essential element.
I’ve also always had a strong personal interest in science fiction, folklore and world mythology. I think that each of these forms of storytelling satisfies similar human impulses. Myth is one of the means by which we give structure and significance to the world around us. We even tend to think of our own lives in somewhat mythic terms; the stories of our personal struggles and triumphs are a kind of saga to us. More specifically, science fiction tends to be an incredibly aspirational form of mythic storytelling. It’s a way of envisioning the progression or transformation of humanity. It helps us understand our current moment by looking forward. I wouldn't necessarily label my own work as being solidly ‘science fiction’ or ‘myth’ in a classical sense, but I’m fascinated by the function that these kinds of stories serve on a spiritual level.
I guess your highly detailed pieces require a great amount of time, concentration and even loneliness. Do you feel like painting is a spiritual activity in itself?
Certainly, at times. There are moments in the studio when painting becomes an intensely meditative process. But much of the time it’s just labour, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that the spiritual act is less in the process itself and more in the aspiration to overcome one’s own limitations. There’s beauty in the undertaking and it satisfies something much more profound than the ego. It’s the drive to create something that could inspire wonder. I view the end result of this as a kind of spiritual communion with a viewer. An exhibition is an opportunity to share a sense of wonder with a complete stranger.
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You’ve said a few times that one of your inspirations has been your personal experience of growing up closeted. Can you tell us in which ways has this experience of self-repression influenced your work? I see some ghosts in rainbow sheets, or one main character circled by a beautiful rainbow. How is painting a process to express your queerness?
I grew up in Georgia, which is in the deep south of the United States. The city that I’m from has since become more suburban, but it was very rural when I was a child. As you can imagine, this meant that the dominant culture was extremely conservative and hostile to social outsiders. Since one of my mothers is transgender, my family lived closeted as a matter of safety. While I personally identify as straight and cisgender, my understanding of gender and sexuality was at odds with the world outside of my home.
During this time, storytelling was a means of creating a false and heteronormative illusion of my home life. In my paintings, I occasionally make overt symbolic references to these experiences. But I also see them as fundamental to my artistic practice as a whole. These experiences are the foundation upon which my values are built. They’re why I’m driven to make work that beautifies and heroicizes subjects that are undeniably other. I’m still a storyteller. But instead of spinning falsehoods, I’m creating myths in which everything begins and ends with empathy for those unlike ourselves.
One of the pieces of Into the Spirit Garden is Spirit Gardener, a colourful human-like being composed of natural elements such as flowers. Could you tell more about this specific piece, which I guess gives name to the exhibition? Why is it central to the show?
Spirit Gardener is a new character in my world. In the narrative of this exhibition, a former Specter embarks on a quest for redemption from their violent past. In a final moment of absolution, this character is transformed into Spirit Gardener, who is a new Border Creature. I wanted this character’s journey to follow the inverse of a typical transcendence narrative. Rather than spiritually progressing by severing earthly connections, this character is redeemed by creating bonds to the world around them. I imagined this as a dissolution of ego through empathy. A softening of the boundaries between an individual and the people and things around them. It’s a fairly specific way of thinking about spiritual progression, but one that felt right for our current moment.
You’ve managed to create your own artistic language with your unique way of painting, but have you always been able to trust your vision? What has helped you the most in trusting your practice?
I’ve always felt the need to experiment and take risks in my work, and I’m often uncertain of what the outcome will be. I don’t always have absolute faith in what I’m making, but I’m sure most artists feel the same way. It can sometimes feel like I’m leaping into the void with only a vague idea of how I’m going to land on my feet. When I’m searching for the courage to take this leap, I turn to the things that I love in art history, film, literature, and contemporary art. Even if I’m uncertain of my next move in the studio, I know that I can trust my love for these aspects of culture.
I also rely on the artistic community around me. When I’m trying out new ideas or imagery in my work, I often turn to my peers for feedback. Sometimes this takes the form of a studio visit, and sometimes it’s a text chain with a painter on the opposite side of the country. These exchanges help me understand my own creative impulses and ultimately play a critical role in shaping the work that I make.
To finish the interview, in addition to reopening your exhibition when the Covid-19 situation ends, what are your plans for the future?
Unfortunately, Into the Spirit Garden will no longer be on view when quarantine ends in California. However, I’m already starting work for my next solo exhibition at Corey Helford Gallery, which will open in the autumn of 2021. I also have a solo exhibition coming up this November at Beinart Gallery in Melbourne, Australia.
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