Sally Cox

Metro Arts, Brisbane

But the very fact of their being regarded as art-products involves an immediate recognition that their shape is attributed to some purpose or other and to a definite end. For this is reason there is no immediate delight whatever in their contemplation. A flower, on the other hand, such as a tulip, is regarded as beautiful, because we meet with a certain finality in its perception, which, in our estimate of it, is not referred to any end whatever.

I. Kant, The Critique of Judgement, Oxford, 1928, In. p. 80

Decorative and pleasing flower paintings are not today an obvious vehicle for high art practice. Sally Cox's exhibition puts into play and exploits a tension between simple pleasures of viewing and reference to a broad set of issues prevalent in contemporary theory. Contemporary art practice being what it is, Cox's problem is almost the complement and obverse of Kant's attempts to cut questions of beauty from allied questions of use, meaning, and technical perfection. Artists today must virtually overwrite works into discursive contexts, into theory, so that 'delight' in vision can itself be bracketed, become a quotation, conceptually cut from any retrograde humanist account of art. Dis/locations is most productively viewed as opening these issues of the relation of art to the ornamental and to 'theory': to questions of the proper and improper uses of art. But Cox's strategy is to begin with an explosive interrelation of referential fields.

'Flower painting' as women's painting, and the art of botanical illustrators of the colonial period are both fields from which Cox appropriates images and resonances. Very large views of blossoms are supplemented with sectional and morphological drawings. They are hung in sets with simpler canvases of serial images of women in gardens and of words denoting concepts. There is a type of narrative whereby the naming and cataloguing of colonialism is made concomitant with the role of female accomplishments such as gardening, flower arrangement and amateur painting in the construct ion women's subjectivity. But there is a surplus here, of beauty or resistance, for both botanical illustration and women's accomplishments clearly exceed their naming functions. The question of relative aesthetic freedom is not only one of determining constrains but of the will to identify.

But, as I say, these are the issues cited by Cox. They are held at a distance as quotations: Harriett Scott, Frederic Bauer, Leonardo da Vinci and Georgia O'Keefe provide the image library on this occasion. And it is unclear how much irony to read into the pattern of appropriation. Is quotation adulation, theft, criticism? And where in time and space is the point at which such disparate images can be collected? Like all second order appropriations Cox's work runs the risk of falling into cynical or trite restatements of the logical paradoxes of representation. Her firmest anchor in negotiating these dangers is a set of spatial and visual questions, another set of paradoxes perhaps, but ones proper to the art object not to concepts of reference.

The question of size leads us through some of Cox's chief concerns in setting out the proprieties of representation. The botanists 'images are expanded to a size which insists that Cox is neither attempting to make nature present nor to match the accuracy of Bauer's pen. These monumental leaves and blossoms float in shallow layered spaces against a ground which is very much like wallpaper. In fact the 'wallpaper' ground is prepared with the use of stencils from a popular publication titled Paint Yourself a Rose Garden. This is a thematics of the domestic interior which is at odds with the size of the canvases and with the size of the gallery, but it also sets up a dissonance between what seriality connotes in high art and the mundaneness of repetition in ornament. The gallery scale of the canvases is a reaction to, but also the evocation of, an anxiety about the work being open to charges of triviality. The triviality in question here is the use of art objects in ornamenting a room, and art practices a woman's life. In a curious way the self-conscious bits of theory—the serially repeated words such as 'ORDER'—become icons of high-art-ness, almost ornaments come to assuage an anxiety about the seriousness, the use-in-uselessness of art.