Adrian Cox is a compelling storyteller. Rooted in myth-making, his practice revolves around the vast world of the Border Creatures: hybrid beings living in the lush ecosystem of the Borderlands.
Border Creatures are lovers, artists, poets, philosophers, musicians and scientists. Blending with the flora, fauna and minerals of their environment, these creatures exist in a state of perpetual metamorphosis. Although grotesque, Border Creatures are peaceful, compassionate, earnest and, ultimately, very human.
Through this meticulously crafted mythology, Adrian examines fundamental questions of the human existence. Once we get past their seemingly monstrous forms, these mythic fictions speak to us as humans, our identity, concepts of beauty and ugliness, and the relationships we form between each other and the environment that surrounds us.
PRØHBTD spoke with Adrian about the origins of the Borderlands and its inhabitants, the relationship between humans and nature, overcoming otherness with empathy, the concept of beauty and the evolution of his mythology.
Your work forms the ongoing mythology of the Border Creatures, a group of hybrid beings that live in the verdant wilderness of the Borderlands. How did this universe first come to be?
I painted the first Border Creature during my second year of graduate school in 2011. In all honesty, this early experiment grew from a very different artistic impulse than my current work. At the time, I had no idea that my practice would eventually become so rooted in storytelling and myth-making. I was interested in using distortions of the human form to subvert the conventions of traditional figurative painting. In these early works, I scrambled everything that we usually use to relate to the human body, ultimately turning the form inside-out. I wanted to use these figures to aggressively confront people with a painted “event,” like an experiential punch to the gut. But this approach wasn't really true to my own artistic impulses. I'm not that kind of visceral painter.
Narrative always seemed to seep into everything I made. Each time I painted a Border Creature, it was as if I was hitting a deep and resonant note, a vibration thrumming with mystery. Something about these figures invited me to dig deeper, to explore the stories that surrounded these totems of post-humanity. I began with simple questions: Where do they live? What do their houses look like? How do they communicate? What are their rituals and customs? The deeper I dove, the vaster the narrative possibilities became. In order for this work to become what it needed to be, I had to dive headfirst into world-building and myth-making. Over time, the narrative aspects of my work have become as central to my practice as my interest in figuration. Stories are powerful things. We constantly use them to understand the world around us.
Your practice is narrative-based, revolving around a meticulously crafted mythology featuring a diverse set of recurring characters that exist in a state of perpetual metamorphosis. Could you tell us something about your protagonists and how are they bound together?
The Border Creatures are a group of beings that live in harmony with the natural world around them, symbiotically bound to the landscape and each other. However, in my recent solo exhibition Awakenings at Beinart Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, I revealed that these beings were once human. As humans, they were tormented by an overwhelming sense of isolation, so they entered a vast wilderness together in a bid to transform themselves. In the deep of the forest, they experimented with ways of blurring the psychological and physical boundaries that defined them. These experiments culminated in a supernatural event that left them anatomically and spiritually transformed. The metamorphosis of these newly born Border Creatures spread into the wilderness around them, and it became an endless garden known as the Borderlands.
I initially named these beings Border Creatures for the soft and shifting form of their anatomy, but their very nature is defined by the edges that connect them to the greater world. They sit at the border between human, animal, plant and mineral. Even the ambiguity of the word “creature” situates them in between states. They began as humans struggling with feelings of isolation, but their transformation turned them into the connective tissue that binds the natural world together.
In your work, you reflect on the increasingly uneasy relationship between humans and nature. What issues concern you the most?
It's hard to be optimistic about the future of our planet right now. We're in the beginning stages of a global catastrophe, and our government seems content to chip away at environmental protections all the same. I have a lot of anxiety about the possibility that we're living in the twilight of the Anthropocene, but ultimately my paintings aren't a guide for mending our relationship with the natural world. Rather, they're my way of processing and reflecting on ideas that have shaped this relationship. Since the 19th century, we've thought of nature as a destination or a place to escape the noise of human culture. But this idea is deeply flawed. We are all Nature, and we're destroying ourselves. If there's any hope for positive change, I believe it begins with accepting our continuity with the natural world.
Your protagonists are monstrous yet vulnerable and sensitive, evoking a great amount of empathy. How do they speak to the contemporary human existence and divisions we build between each other?
The idea of overcoming otherness with empathy has always been a guiding principle in my work. For me, this isn't an abstract or distant idea, it's something that comes directly from lived experience. I grew up in a closeted family with a transgender parent in the Deep South. So, even as a child, I was acutely aware of the fact that people tend to label anything unlike themselves as “monstrous.” So we used stories to conceal our true nature. These stories were falsehoods, but they were comforting because they presented a mirror of sameness. With this facade, we told people, “We're just like you,” or at least close enough not to be threatening.
The stories I tell about the Border Creatures might be filtered through the lens of science fiction, but at their core, they're a celebration of difference. With these works, I try to transform the Other into a mythic hero. The narrative in my work doesn't begin with “We're just like you.” It begins with “We are different, and that is beautiful.”
Border Creatures are both grotesque and visually seductive. Could you tell us something about this contrasting concept of attraction and repulsion? How do you think it transgresses conventional categories of beauty?
My ideas on this have evolved over time. The school I received my graduate degree from had an interdisciplinary program, so I was constantly being challenged to closely consider my medium when I was studying there. Why choose to make an oil painting of your subject matter? Why such an accessible medium so easily tied to ornamentation? At the time, I would almost always give the easy answer. People understand painting and find well-crafted images attractive. So obviously, beauty is the honey that makes the medicine go down smoothly. It's what entices people to consider difficult subject matter and to look closely at things that might otherwise repulse them.
But these days, I'm not sure it's that simple. I don't think I'd feel such a compulsion to push my capabilities as a painter were beauty merely an issue of enticing the viewer to spend time looking. I believe there's power in seeking beauty, in the process of ornamentation itself. When I first learned to paint, I saw ornamentation as something frivolous and unnecessary to the power of a truly great painting. But ornamentation isn't merely about making an enjoyable image to look at. There's something ritualistic and powerful in the countless hours of labor required to create an object of true ornamental beauty. For me, this ritual is an act of visual praise for my subject matter, and a way of elevating and enriching the figures I paint. The empathy I feel for the characters in my work is very important to my practice, and it's part of why I spend so much time striving to paint them beautifully.
Your characters are set against wonderfully intricate, lush surroundings. How do these landscapes play into the narrative you have created?
I've always been interested in using the Borderlands to speak to the idea of Nature rather than any specific place in particular. So for me, the landscape becomes something mythic⎯both a stage on which the events in my work take place and a character in and of itself. This gives me a lot a room to bend the rules of pictorial space as well, since realism isn't necessarily my end goal. Often times I like to heighten the focus of the entire landscape, which tends to create a shallower but more visually intense space. You can see this in how I paint grass and underbrush in particular, almost as if the forest floor is a medieval tapestry. There's a certain abstract sensibility in this way of constructing space that gives me a lot of room to explore my interest in ornamentation. I think this comes through in my treatment of color as well. The starting point might be a closely observed study of a natural landscape, but everything is heightened and saturated well beyond the threshold of realism. There's as much Walt Disney as Camille Corot in these paintings.
Your paintings are beautifully rendered and contain an impressive amount of detail. Could you tell us something about your working process?
My process for creating a painting is a little bit insane, to be honest. But I'm a true believer in the idea that the journey and not the destination offers an artist their greatest insights. For me, everything begins with writing. I have notes scribbled down in about a dozen sketchbooks with ideas for paintings, most of which I never begin. I also have a master document in which I record the mythology of the Border Creatures as I create it. There's a lot of creative flexibility here since I'm essentially building the ship as I'm sailing it.
Simultaneously, I create sculptural maquettes of the figures I paint. Since these characters are recurring throughout my work, it's important that I can accurately depict them from different angles and under various lighting conditions again and again. These sculptures are my solution, and they help me become intimately familiar with any figure I paint. My approach to sculpting the Border Creatures is organic, and I pull from a variety of materials as I work. I've used clay, acrylic gel medium, fake flowers, socks, wax, quartz crystals, sugar... pretty much anything I think will make an interesting form. I can then light and photograph these maquettes for any study, and I only have to create a new sculpture when I introduce a new character.
The finished digital studies that I paint from are fairly polished. They're usually a mix of photographs, scans of gouache-painted backgrounds, and details digitally drawn in with a tablet. They give me a reasonably clear idea of how a final image might work, but regardless of how much planning I do, there's always a lot of discovery in the act of painting itself. No digital image can ever fully anticipate the material possibilities in a painting, so I have to seek those possibilities out once brush meets canvas. Once I begin painting, every step along the path is a revelation.
Until recently, Borderlands has existed in a perfect and harmonious state. What has changed, and how do you see this mythology expand and evolve in the future?
I think it was inevitable that the utopian elements in my work would come to an end. My early depictions of the Borderlands show this mythic world as a place of perfect harmony⎯a place that I've referred to as an “Arcadia for the Other.” There was something deeply life-affirming in this, and it allowed me to envision the world as it could be. This is a place and a time in my narrative that I sometimes return to when I need to create something genuinely hopeful. But the world that we live in is also filled with conflict and human folly, and I've found it creatively necessary to fold this into my mythology as well.
This shift first occurred in my 2018 solo exhibition Terra Incognita at Corey Helford Gallery [in Los Angeles]. In this show, I introduced the Specters, who are the antagonists of my narrative. The Specters are spirits of pure and violent energy, and their relationship with the other inhabitants of Borderlands is incredibly hostile. They act out the worst and most destructive impulses of humanity, destroying anything and everything that doesn't look like them. In the events depicted in Terra Incognita, the Border Creatures eventually triumph over the Specters, but the threat they pose continues to be a point of tension in my narrative.
Your work is currently in Corey Helford Gallery as part of its 13th anniversary group show. Could you tell us something about the work that will be on view?
First off, I highly recommend visiting the gallery to view this painting in person. There's a lot going on in the color and texture of this work that simply can't be captured by a digital image. My painting for this exhibition, “Penitent Spirit's Search for a Space Between Heaven and Earth Part V,” is part of an ongoing series that follows the journey of a former Specter. Penitent Spirit, the character depicted in this work, was once a blue Specter, and was responsible for the death of one of the Border Creatures. However, after the events depicted in Terra Incognita, they were transformed into a rainbow-hued Spectral Witness. Now this being wanders the fields of the Borderlands in search of redemption, hoping to find a new and better way of existing. This series is a recognition of the potential for positive transformation within everyone.
What’s next for you?
Right now I'm working on my next solo exhibition at Corey Helford Gallery, which will be opening in early 2020. This forthcoming body of work will continue the story set forth in Terra Incognita, and it will be the second chapter in the ongoing struggle between the Border Creatures and the Specters. These new works will follow the divergent paths of Penitent Spirit's quest for redemption and the Spectral Brotherhood's search for dominance over the Borderlands. This will be my most ambitious body of work to date.