Great Meadows Foundation uplifts Queer artists alongside Queer Kentucky: J. Cletus Wilcox

by John Brooks

Visual artists are a vital part of Kentucky’s Queer community. Thanks to the Great Meadows Foundation, which was launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and  philanthropist Al Shands (1928-2021) in order to critically strengthen and support visual  art in Kentucky, Queer Kentucky will be featuring interviews with a number of these  artists.

In order to create, artists need—among many other things—skill, knowledge, patience, a critical eye, and a robust, roving curiosity; because of this, what they make cannot be separated from the act of its making. Though this may seem too obvious a fact to mention, when encountering artworks in galleries, institutions, collections, or wherever else, remembering that what we are viewing originated in a studio and as a result of an artist’s explorations, experiences, and identity, can help facilitate a deeper understanding of what we see. This is especially true when considering the work of J. Cletus Wilcox, an artist whose studio practice and life are aligned with harmonious intention. Embodying the Aristotelian claim that “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance,” Wilcox endeavors to understand himself—and thus existence—through keen focus on concept, process, materiality, and metaphor.

Born in Louisville in 1983, Wilcox has been working as an artist for a dozen years. Given that being an artist is as much a disposition as a profession, he recognizes, however, that he has always been one. His own Queerness has long been apparent, too. “I can remember being in the first or second grade,” he says, “and hearing that question of what do you want to be when you grow up, and I looked at other people and thought they will have kids, they will have a career, but because I am queer, I won’t have either of those things. That’s still a belief that is lodged in the deepest parts of my brain. In many ways, in living my life from that place, that’s what l have manifested.”

While at St. Xavier, an all-boys Catholic high school, Wilcox hid his true self.

“I spent a lot of effort trying to craft an identity that was safe, because I felt I was not able to trust myself, not able to trust how I moved my body, said words, or express what I was interested in. It was at this time that my path really diverged from authenticity.” When he was eighteen, he moved to California, where he became heavily involved with the San Francisco Zen Center and came out to his friends and a gay uncle. But after living in the city for a year, he decided to leave and pursue climbing—another passion—full-time, a move that prompted a return to the closet. He didn’t come out fully until he was twenty-seven. If Wilcox’s inhibited youth was the beginning of two decades of accumulative shame, it was his bifurcated, fitful coming out that was the impetus for the work that he is currently making and for the sincere, ongoing efforts he undertakes to discover and enlighten his essential nature.

Wilcox’s experiences will no doubt resonate with many in the Queer community. The trajectories of our young lives can be stunted and diminished by the explicit and implicit ways in which we are made to feel other, less than, or as if we must live outside the bounds of traditional society, family, and related orthodoxies. It could be argued that Queerness itself requires a certain amount of creativity: as we grow, ideally we are able to find paths and outlets that allow us to rightly express our true selves and our true desires, either by fighting our way into the spaces where we want to be or by forming and tailoring our own circumstances, no matter how unconventional they may be. Therefore, authentic Queerness requires its own form of iconoclasm. Because of the dictates of mainstream American culture, artists, generally speaking, are nonconformists. Queer artists might be doubly so, though, because of oppressive impediments, it can sometimes take a long time to bring that capacity to fruition. This was the case for Wilcox. “As my life unfolds,” he says, “it is ushering me in directions that are a mystery, but those directions find expression in the studio.”

Cletus posing in front of his work, THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL BOYS – Acrylic Image Transfer, Oil, Oil Pastel, Graphite, Gold Leaf and Aluminum Leaf on Canvas with Poplar Frame. 60” x 72” 2019

Self-taught but “communally raised,” as he says, Wilcox relies on other artists to help teach him new skills when technical or material dilemmas arise. For the last three years, he has worked out of a large studio at Mellwood Art Center; the ceilings are extraordinarily high and there is a clear view of the downtown Louisville skyline. Ostensibly a painter, Wilcox refers to himself as one “only in the loosest sense of the word;” he makes this distinction not to be intentionally vague but because he has both a natural resistance to certainty and categorization and because his painting process isn’t orthodox.

Inspired by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg—two giants of twentieth century American art and both Queer men—Wilcox frequently uses image transfers as the central motifs in his paintings. To start a new piece, he begins on the floor with unstretched, unprimed canvas, upon which he applies two coats of clear gesso with a large paint brush. When that dries, a layer of high gloss acrylic medium is put on the canvas in a chosen spot. Next, an image which Wilcox has had enlarged and printed (via a commercial printer that uses fibrous paper) is cut out and then placed ink-side down on the surface, marrying it with the medium. Natural air bubbles form, and though he tries to smooth out most of these, some variations are welcome and allowed to remain. Once the medium is fully dry, Wilcox goes back with a wet sponge and removes the paper. An image is visible on the resulting canvas surface, though what we see isn’t paper but rather simply the toner embedded and bound in the acrylic medium. This laborious process takes about a week, and it is only after doing all of this preliminary work that he begins to paint.

Wilcox’s newest body of work, Brightness Hiding, takes its name from Hexagram 36, ming yi, of the I Ching, a two thousand year old Chinese divination tool. “The I Ching can be described as a guide to an ethical life,” Wilcox says. “In the Book of Changes, there are sixty-four characters, and each one is about a phase of life we go through, working towards authenticity, growth, and strength.” All of the paintings in this new series are inspired by one of the characters; Wilcox’s title choice clearly equates luminosity and truth with Queerness and  metaphorically represents his journey of overcoming his own suppression. “We’re born with  possession of authenticity, but as we’re buffeted around by the ebb and flow of shame and harm and humiliation as Queer men, we move away from authenticity to keep ourselves safe, and eventually we realize that doesn’t keep up safe at all.”

Untitled – Acrylic Image Transfer, 23 Karat Gold Leaf, Graphite and Charcoal on Canvas. 24” x 24” 2021

Brightness Hiding is centered around the image of a paper church fan from the 1950s, which he found at Louisville’s legendary but now defunct Joe Ley Antiques. Depicting a white Jesus preaching to a small group of women and children, the fan’s shape is reminiscent of a handheld mirror. The image repeats itself throughout the paintings, but because Wilcox’s process involves a great deal of obscuring and covering of the figural elements—in many cases leaving only the form—it is impossible to see the shape and not see a mirror. This is, of course, intentional. “The fact that it’s a fan doesn’t hold as much weight as a mirror does, so that shape is really important,” he says. He wants us to know that we are looking at him looking at himself and his dualities and complexities. The religiosity of the fan’s image isn’t lost on Wilcox, but it wasn’t why he was primarily drawn to the object. “The image for me isn’t so much about Jesus, but when I see it, it’s as if Jesus represents an inner truth of authenticity guiding the disparate parts of our personality in a harmonic way,” he says. “I am stumbling on metaphors and coincidences that represent me, because I was raised Catholic, but I am lay-ordained in the Zen tradition, so having this original Christian image in the context of a Taoist divination tool is expressive of me and my own life.”

Untitled – Acrylic Image Transfer, 23 Karat Gold Leaf, Charcoal, Oil and Oil Pastel on Canvas. 36” x 36” 2021

The next step in Wilcox’s process is to work on top of the image transfers—just as Rauschenberg and Warhol did—covering, obscuring, reducing, and scrubbing, seeking an aesthetic balance that makes sense to him. No alarm bell ever rings to signal a painting’s completion—only the painter knows when the last mark has been made. Wilcox understands that being an artist is as much as about discovering as it is about making; execution is a mystery, and the artist must accept and cultivate that mystery. His materials vary: oil paint, some acrylic paint, pure pigments consisting of heavy metals like cadmium and chromium manganese, glass microspheres, 24 karat gold, silver, and copper, which is oxidized with salt and vinegar, resulting in patinated surfaces that crack and bubble. In some works, Jesus’ visage is visible, but in others we see only the shape of the fan. Because he considers it necessary to have the aspect of labor present in the work, we can be certain that Wilcox has followed every step of his process even when the image is totally obscured.

Untitled – Acrylic Image Transfer, 23 Karat Gold Leaf, Charcoal, Oil and Oil Pastel on Canvas. 48” x 24” 2021

Wilcox’s methods are a mixture of precise planning and an openness to risk and happenstance that requires a little bravery. “I find pleasure in the paradox of following and leading at the same time,” he says, “leaving the doors open for accidents to happen.” Many lovers of painting will contend that the best paintings are full of so-called “accidents,” yet most painters will insist that it takes expertise to create the conditions where such “magic” can occur. “In the finished paintings, every mark is essential,” Wilcox says, meaning that nothing we are seeing is wholly unintended. In a painting entitled The Creative and The Receptive, for example, there is floor schmutz—marks from the artist’s knees—amid vast areas of empty, quiet, restraint. It is precisely this tension between the exacting and cautious repetitiveness of Wilcox’s central imagery and the variations—in terms of material, technique, and mark-making—within those iterations that makes these works so visually compelling. Elegant , rich, and sophisticated, the paintings lay bare the artist’s competing halves: the desire to expose versus the desire to hide, and the maximalist ornamentation of his ingrained Catholicism versus the practiced, minimalist tendencies of his Zen beliefs. This body of work, which is substantial but not yet completed, was scheduled to be exhibited this month at Quappi Projects, but the gallery’s unexpected closure has put those plans on hold. Wilcox, who has previously shown at Louisville galleries Quappi Projects, Kore Gallery, Tim Faulkner Gallery, and New Orleans’ Spillman Blackwell, is continuing to complete the paintings in hopes that the gallery will reopen or another white-walled space becomes available. 

Wilcox possesses great reverence for the examined life. His creative impulses are driven by the search for and fulfillment of authenticity and truth; this also serves as a rubric for how he lives his life. Although his work is serious, it isn’t somber, and his reflectiveness comes not from a place of self-importance but rather a sincere respect for the experience and sacredness of existence. It is humility rather than hubris that compels him to place himself at the center of his practice. Wilcox’s artwork reflects his introspection: the work unfolds, broadens, becomes deeper, because he is unfolding. The two cannot be separated. This January, Wilcox will turn forty. He is old enough now to know that the process of coming to know oneself, to love oneself, is akin to learning how to be an artist: it is ongoing and ever-expansive. There is simply no arrival, no point at which one knows and understands all; in an age of increasing self-assuredness, ideological rigidity, and zealous dogmatism, we’d do well to remember that this credo applies to artists and non-artists alike. Close examination naturally brings disruption and discomfort, but from those struggles comes betterment, understanding, and higher truths.

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