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Where in heaven's name are the decency police when you need them? This month's show of erotica by Renee Cox at C. Grimaldis Gallery offers what surely must be the most shocking photographs ever exhibited in Baltimore.

If that sounds like hyperbole, think Robert Mapplethorpe without the whip, think Andres Serrano, think Helmut Newton with nipples. Think Cindy Sherman posing herself in blackface as the Playboy centerfold; think Sherrie Levine grabbing pornographic images off the internet.

I know, it's almost too shocking to imagine.

But once you've worked yourself up into a frothing rage of righteous indignation, once you've convinced yourself of the clear and present danger to the moral fabric of the community, the threat to our children, the mockery of our values and the pernicious subversion of everything we hold dear in the name of a misguided conception of "art," then -- and only then -- take a deep breath and think again.

Maybe the woman is onto something. Maybe it takes a lot of guts to do what she's doing. Maybe she doesn't give a damn what you think.

Cox is no stranger to controversy. Last year she was plucked from relative obscurity and turned into a national symbol of artistic irresponsibility by none other than the mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who denounced her photograph Yo Mama's Last Supper as blasphemy when it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

The picture showed Cox posing as a semi-nude Jesus surrounded by 12 black disciples arrayed in the classic compositional scheme of Leonardo's famous fresco. It was barely on the walls before the Catholic League, a New York-based advocacy group, complained that the picture insulted Catholics. Giuliani pledged to establish a decency commission to review works in museums that received city funding.

Meanwhile, the critics at The New York Times dismissed Cox with one voice as an opportunist, an exhibitionist and a publicity hound.

The uproar caused the value of Yo Mama's Last Supper to jump threefold from its original asking price of $8,000 by the end of the exhibit, when it was snapped up by a collector.

And that's pretty much the way it has gone since then for Cox, 41, who says she still can't quite understand what all the fuss was about. "This country is so puritanical," she says. "Slavery taught African-Americans to be ashamed of their bodies. I want to change that. In Europe and other parts of the world, people have a much more natural relationship to their bodies."

Today she is an art world celebrity, a name with all the right buzz whose works are sought after by wealthy collectors and exhibited in prestigious museums. (One of Cox's works, a huge sendup of the stereotypes of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, occupies pride of place at the entrance to the Baltimore Museum of Art's show Looking Forward / Looking Black, which opened last week).

An exhibition, in every sense of the word

But except for Cox's mural-sized re-creation of Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe, in which the artist poses as the naked woman lunching on the lawn, most of the works on view at Grimaldis are a far cry from the historical parodies of European masterpieces that first earned Cox notoriety.

More than half the photographs depict the artist in frankly erotic poses and costumes -- tightly bound leather corsets, fishnet stockings, stiletto heels -- that boldly invite the viewer to share her sexual fantasies. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that these highly charged images are presented alongside dozens of ordinary snapshots of the artist's family -- her parents, husband, children and in-laws.

The effect is to turn the viewer into a kind of double voyeur, a cross between a keyhole peeping Tom and a snoop in someone else's family photo album.

Cox stopped by Baltimore last week to attend the opening of her new show. In person, she's strikingly direct and forthright -- and far more diminutive than she appears in her photographs, which intentionally make her seem larger than life.

The daughter of prosperous Jamaican immigrant parents who grew up in the exclusive New York suburb of Scarsdale, Cox married her white college sweetheart (a Frenchman who now is a successful investment banker) and decided to become an artist 10 years ago while working as a fashion photographer in Paris.

Because of these unstereotypical experiences, Cox has a thing about identity. It's the inspiration for her art, the one thing she won't compromise.

Growing up black in a mostly white world, a woman in a world dominated by men, she learned to live a sort of dual existence. On the one hand, she was constantly struggling to figure out who she was and where she fit in; on the other, she was constantly fending off people telling her who she was and where she fit in.

Cox is a free spirit who wants to be herself by being her whole self -- black, beautiful, sexy and rich (she and her husband have an apartment in Soho and a house in the Hamptons), a devoted wife and mother (the couple have two sons, age 13 and 8), a serious artist, an activist for causes she believes in. The world keeps telling her she can't have it all, but she isn't listening.

That's why she puts her family photographs side-by-side with her erotica. For her, family -- babies, parenthood, house and car payments, the whole nine yards of upper-middle-class domestic life -- "is simply what happens when people acknowledge their sexuality and act on it."

She rejects the stereotypes

So she takes as much pleasure in her sexual attractiveness as in her children, as much pride in her black skin as in her fancy university degrees and affluent lifestyle. She refuses, in short, to be defined by the stereotypes most people think of when they think of black women. "No madonna / whore dichotomy for me, thank you," she says.

Cox's work draws on some of the more interesting art of the past quarter-century.

Like Sherman, she inserts herself as the central subject of her pictures, combining photography with performance art. But unlike Sherman, who distances herself from the characters she portrays, Cox embraces them openly as aspects of her own personality.

From Levine, Cox borrows the tactic of appropriating an existing image and using it as her own. (An example is Cox's large mural in the BMA show, which incorporates images of the commercial packaging used for rice and pancake mix).

Marcel Duchamp's idea that the quality of a work of art depends not on its formal inventiveness but on the ideas that stand behind it underlies Cox' technique of lifting almost verbatim the poses and costumes of 1950s girlie magazines and incorporating them into her erotica. Likewise, the snapshots of relatives and friends are copied straight out of her family photo album.

And from Mapplethorpe, Cox learned the voluptuous and unrestrained embrace of the body as an object of pleasure. In one of the Grimaldis works, she presents a kind of psychological triptych in which a central image of her younger self as a prim Catholic schoolgirl is flanked on either side by overtly erotic shots of the artist as mistress of sexual pleasure. The message seems to be that both images -- childhood innocence and adult sensuality -- are part of who she is.

I liked this show a lot. It's about invisibility and empowerment, sex and love, race, class and gender -- all hot topics in the art world these days -- but, strange as it seems, when you come right down to it, it's mostly about family. And that just may be the most shocking thing of all.


What: Photographs by Renee Cox

Where: Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free

Call: 410-539-1080

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