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Arts

Arts Playlist: Clark Fox and 'Icon Chains'

New York and Delaware-based artist Clark Fox has spent decades churning out bright canvases filled with pop culture and political heavyweights. His new show Icon Chains runs the gamut of not only his career, but the complexity race and social justice in America.

Born Michael V. Clark in 1946, Clark Fox got his start studying the world’s great artists at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. At first glance it would be easy to compare his work to the pop art style of Andy Warhol, but Fox thinks his work is less commercial.

 

"I didn't really want to be hanging on the walls of rich nobodies," Fox said.

 

Walking from canvas to canvas at his new exhibit installed at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover, Fox talked of his love for his country, but thinks it’s lost its spark. And he said his work reflects that.

 

"It's an everyman kind of art. Like these oranges over here."

 

He walked past portraits of FDR and George Washington splashed against bright purple and yellow backgrounds to a wall full of about 50 oranges, each similar, yet individually painted.

 

Fox said this bright wall of citrus is his way of speaking out against NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement championed by the Clinton administration in the 90's.

 
The oranges represent American fruit workers affected by the influx of competition the trade agreement ushered in.

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Credit Courtesy of Biggs Museum
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Clark Fox has painted dozens and dozens of NAFTA oranges in the last 20 years.

"And here we are over 20 years later and he's still creating NAFTA oranges," said Biggs Curator Ryan Grover.

He’s attracted to Fox’s paintings not only because of the breadth of his work, enough to fill the museum multiple times over, but with the depth of his images.

"He wants (his paintings) to be appealing. He wants them to be beautiful, but there is this underlying message about social inequality, about economic disparity, about corporate greed," Grover said.

It’s those central themes that sparked a collaboration between The Biggs Museum and Delaware State University in Dover. The school is hosting a panel discussion with DSU professors and Fox talking about social inequality and race in art.

"I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to look at this icon who's art has over time questioned society," said Dr. Akwasi Osei, chairperson for the Department of History at DSU.

He said he’s most interested in a series Fox did about one of the country’s most influential presidents.

 

"Abraham Lincoln, as we all know, was the man who freed the slaves. And that simple sentence has quite a bit more behind it."

 

38 one off portraits, neatly arranged in rows, all with bright, colorful backgrounds that contrast the stoic image of Lincoln grab your attention as you move through the Biggs.

 

 

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Credit Mark Arehart
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Fox chose to paint 38 portraits to represent the number of Dakota Sioux tribe who were hanged by Lincoln’s order in 1862.

 
He wanted to draw attention to the president’s often overlooked conflict with Native Americans.

 
But to Dr. Osei, the series represents Lincoln’s complex relationship with slavery, as well.

"So the Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves who were in territories that had broken away. So in places like Delaware, like Kentucky. The border states who did not join the confederacy, slavery was still legal. So that begs the question, did he really believe in emancipation or emancipation for a particular cause?"

Dr. Osei said Fox’s work expresses a whole picture of figures like Lincoln and Washington, who are revered for helping build America, but also in many ways responsible for its shortcomings.

And that’s just fine with Clark Fox. He wants people to peer into his paintings and think about bigger ideas, like in one painting where an ominous Mr. Peanut creeps in from the edge of the canvas.

 
To Fox, the Planter’s nut shaped mascot is capitalism. So why not make him big and fun and kind of scary?

"He really is the guy in charge. He does really represent the CEOs," Fox said. 

Though bright and dotted with with pastel colors, his canvases aren’t simple, they’re not just black and white. They are grey and purple and faded yellow, some speckled with thick globs of paint, showing more than you think at first glance.

Delaware Public Media' s arts coverage is made possible, in part, by support from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.

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