The eminent anthropologist Robert L. Hall had his “Shmoo Theory” as to why Native Americans might have abandoned the massive urban complex of Cahokia several hundred years ago. In Al Capp’s Li’l Abner cartoon series the discovery of creatures called shmoos leads to social chaos because they reproduce overabundantly and are easy to catch and eat. Folks no longer need to work to survive and the government has to engage in an anti-shmoo crusade to save the US economy. Hall mirthfully postulated, during a lecture I attended as an undergraduate, that extreme climate change recreated perfect conditions for a hunting-gathering lifestyle for the Cahokians and they readily abandoned their city to go back to a more satisfying and egalitarian lifestyle based on what shmoos represent - a generous natural environment inviting us to live peacefully and labor-free within it. Chucking everything and going back to the land might have historical precedence.
The fantasy of abandoning our labor-intensive and inequitable economic system for something better, in fact, owes its origins to the discovery of the North American continent and the realization of some European thinkers (e.g. Thomas More, Montaigne, Rousseau) that there might be something terribly wrong about the social and economic relationships in Western societies based on a comparison and contrast between them and Native American societies. In the book Indian Givers Jack Weatherford writes that these thinkers acknowledged the “…unavoidable truth that the technologically simple Indians usually lived in more just, equitable and egalitarian social conditions.” Weatherford points out that Marx studied Native American societies and felt that the form of social relationships following the obliteration of capitalism would mirror the freedom and equality found in the Iroquois social system.
Andrew LeMay Cox, in his current show at Gallery Victor Armendariz in Chicago, references this urban-chucking, chiliastic vision of an alternative life where the artifacts of the city lie strewn around, abandoned, as folks revel in a sustainable relationship with nature, frolicking in sexuality and the joys of cooperative communal engagement, in lieu of pursuing specialized professions, empty prestige and forms of anti-social exploitation. He calls the show PoP-LoRE as a combination of popular culture and folklore. As he explained it to me, his work is a “contemporary take on classic legend, myth or tradition” and, from what I understand, a look at story-telling in light of historical ideologies and parables.
The divisive values and trappings of contemporary society are disregarded by the multihued folks inhabiting his works, looking a bit like the participants in the Hindu festival of Holi, where people splatter each other with colors in a celebration of life and overcoming inner demons. The differing hues in Cox’s work, however, are to help effect a situation where race, religion and class are expunged. These folks live among the detritus of a society which does not seem to have provided the material conditions for a better world; capitalist stuff has not allowed for the development of communist cavorting. Indeed, this new order seems due to the evolution or development of human consciousness and a rejection of values harmful to the environment as well as toxic to humane social relationships.
Cox’s work also points, to me, to the possibilities of living a new type of life within the current imperfect and morally problematic social situation and I feel his work can be taken as a way to conceptualize what a life of nonconformity toward corrosive values might look like as a visual parable. Marx said that in the coming culmination of history, when the state and stratification wither away, you can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and write at night, without becoming a hunter, fisherman, herdsman or professional writer. Cox’s work becomes a kind of a visual analog to Thoreau's Walden or even Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, which tried to teach a person how to live a meaningfully counter-cultural life in New York City, avoiding complicity with everything that was wrong there. Hoffman himself tried to live this type of life of meaning and frugality (and love) among the waste of a contemporary American landscape. On yet a deeper level, Cox’s work can be allegorical concerning the abandonment of a burdensome process involving self-deceptive desire or will and the submission to a more benevolent process of growth.
Following in a Chicago tradition, Cox uses eye-popping, striking colors and he fills each work with so many details that one is compelled to first take in the blissful and buoyant effect of the design and coloration before focusing on the particular aspects of the millenarian escape he offers. He gets these colors in part by using ink that is baked at high temperatures and each piece involves image creation on skins. The skins are hung from the stretcher and, as Cox explained to me, add sculptural properties to otherwise two-dimensional surfaces. The implication is that, basically, you cannot put new wine in old wineskins - traditional forms and techniques may need to be tinkered with for the new types of messages we need to express and embrace to save both ourselves and our environment. These are visually impressive fables celebrating the restoration of humane values, the belief that the compassionate nature of social relationships can still be reclaimed merely by refraining from what is obviously noxious and by choosing, instead, to show forgiveness, toleration, support and love, in all of its forms, to each other.
Gallery Victor Armendariz is a wonderful place to see art and although this show has closed some of Cox’s work will remain on display through December. If you are in Chicago and get a chance, please drop by and check out this work in person - you will be razzle-dazzled.