She Wolf + Lower Figs: A Colorful Response to Plaster Casts at the Blanton Museum

I first encountered Lily Cox-Richard’s exhibition “She Wolf + Lower Figs” among the artifacts it seeks to challenge — the W. J. Battle plaster casts. Made in the 19th century, the Battle casts are the products of an art school tradition that encouraged students to draw the human figure from idealized ancient models. The collection resides in the Osbourne Seminar Room on the museum’s first floor, far from the upstairs Contemporary Project Gallery which houses the majority of the “She Wolf + Lower Figs” exhibition. Unexpectedly, Cox-Richard has added multicolored sheer tulle fabric to a cast of Leochares’ “Apollo Belvedere,” boldly contradicting the austere whiteness of the plasters. The Battle casts get the proportions of ancient sculptures correct and thus are a valuable pedagogical tool, but they don’t match the original works of sculpture. They’re missing an important visual element — color

Painted reproductions of ancient marbles, although more historically accurate, are often seen as jarring by the general public, which has come to view the whiteness of faded ancient Greek statues and their numerous plaster copies as part of an idealized aesthetic. As a wall text in the “She Wolf + Lower Figs” exhibition points out, the lack of pigment on these figures creates “the false impression that these sculptures and ancient people were all white.” 

Cox-Richard’s show intervenes to correct this perception in two ways. The first is that, like her alteration to “Apollo Belvedere” downstairs, she has covered two more Battle casts in colorful tulle. These altered objects she groups under the title “Figs.” Secondly, she has drawn from the casts to create new sculptures whose pigment cannot be erased by time. 

The casts that Cox-Richard has selected for the upstairs portion of her show are “Goddesses from the East Pediment of the Parthenon: Dione and Aphrodite.” The insides of the casts are exposed, allowing the viewer to see a wooden substructure of cross braces. Their hollowness mirrors that of the assumption that they represent an ancient white ideal. Remembering the colorful historical realities of classical sculpture is particularly important in a political environment that is seeing a resurgence of far-right extremism organized along racial boundaries. When “Dione and Aphrodite” were created circa 438-432 BCE, being a true Greek was not a racial boundary but a cultural and linguistic one. The Parthenon statues in no way attempted to promote white supremacy, but they have been co-opted for this purpose by hate groups like Unite the Right

The modern conception of race is a byproduct of the sad fact of racism. As W. J. T. Mitchell proposes in his 2012 book “Seeing Through Race,” race is a “medium,” “lens,” or “repertoire of cognitive and conceptual filters” through which we cannot help but interpret and react to the past. We place racialized readings onto ancient sculptures and plaster casts, even though these objects did not have racialized connotations in their original contexts. Greek statues may have idealized proportions, but their paint jobs indicate that they weren’t created to glorify or idealize whiteness as a characteristic of the human body. White supremacists have a tendency to ignore this cultural and historical context, claiming ancient Greek heritage as a way of bolstering an unjustified feeling of racial superiority. What Cox-Richard is doing should not be radical, and yet the simple fact that these ancient forms had color is so often ignored. In addition to covering the casts in tulle, Cox-Richard takes them off their traditional pedestals and puts them on pallets. This display choice hints at the fact that they live in storage and suggests the complex provenance of the original marbles, which have been transported away from their original locations in Greece and are now housed in the British Museum.

The most striking of the new sculptures Cox-Richard has created for this show is a copy of the “Capitoline She-wolf. This sculpture dates to the fifth century B.C.E. and is often seen as a symbol of Rome’s founding, although scholars debate whether or not it is actually Ancient Etruscan or even a product of the Middle Ages. Cox-Richard’s copy is crafted not from bronze but scagliola, and the result is a psychedelic mix of color, that, because it is integrated into the material, cannot fade away. In the Capitoline museum, the “She-wolf” is displayed with the suckling figures of Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus. These statues were added to the “Capitoline She-wolf” in the 15th century and were created in a different artistic style. Cox-Richard has chosen not to include them in her sculpture and instead focuses on the she-wolf alone, a figure of power and maternal care. 

 “She-Wolf” sits atop a concrete ramp, which is itself a work of sculpture (conveniently entitled “Ramp”). From underneath the ramp, dark puddles ooze, and in the corners, a mosaic of color appears in the aggregate which includes 3D printed copies of strands of hair from the Battle casts. “Ramp” extends from the plaster casts toward the entrance to the gallery, echoing the catwalk-like shape of the platform on which the Battle casts are displayed in the Osbourne Seminar Room. Its shape suggests Cox-Richard’s colorful new “She-Wolf” is walking away from the Battle casts, forward in time towards the viewer. But the path created by “Ramp” is not one on which museum visitors can walk. It is an obstacle, forcing viewers to walk through the space and around the sculptures to cross the gallery. 

The ramp places “She-Wolf” at ground level, challenging the viewer’s traditional relationship with the object. The puddles can be read as historical perspectives swelling up from underneath cultural infrastructure that has covered over them for centuries. “In the context of Texas,” notes Cox-Richard, “these puddles could be a petroleum ooze, given their oil-slick sheen.” In either reading, the planned and carefully laid infrastructure is being disrupted. Together with the She-Wolf, the dark ooze disrupts the sidewalk grid, advocating for an expanded canon. 

Sidewalks are a symbol that appears multiple times in Lily Cox-Richards’ body of work. Her sculpture “Callous” (2018) is, like “Ramp,” a broken strip of cement with bits of colorful aggregate exposed at the corners and dark puddles seeping from underneath. As part of her solo show “Berm” at DiverseWorks in Houston last year, this sculpture responded to sidewalks as an infrastructure that bridges between public streets and private homes. Additionally, it drew a comparison between skin calluses and the hard cement patches within cities, indicating that both provide protection in a way that isn’t always comfortable.

“She Wolf + Lower Figs” brings Cox-Richard’s exploration of infrastructure into the historical and cultural realm. In this show, every detail of her artwork, including each material, responds to the legacy of whiteness illustrated by the Battle casts. The exhibition welcomes viewers in and holds their attention through layered symbols. In its approachability, the exhibition becomes doubly effective, succeeding in drawing attention to historical inaccuracies and skewed perceptions that frequently masquerade as fact.

She Wolf + Lower Figs will remain on view at the Blanton Museum until December 29, 2019. 

Categories: Arts

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