The Shock of the Now Issue 20
Featured Exhibition Text
'Brown Willy' Solo Exhibition
1st December 2021
In 2016 one of London’s longest-established art dealers, The Redfern Gallery, presented Danny Fox‘s solo exhibition 'As He Bowed His Head to Drink’, the coming-of-age story culmination of a young artist’s rapid rise to painterly prominence. Now six years later, and about 100 metres down the road, Fox unveils his latest solo exhibition ‘Brown Willy’ at Saatchi Yates‘ cavernous Cork Street gallery, it’s title taken from Bodmin Moor’s Brown Willy, the highest point in Cornwall with a name derived from the Cornish Bronn Ewhella meaning 'highest hill’.
Following a protracted stint in Los Angeles that saw him turn to strip clubs, strip malls and Skid Row for inspiration, Fox recently returned to his native St Ives, a town he left for London in his mid-teens to purse a career as a painter despite lacking any formal artistic training. Now residing in an old farmhouse a short drive out of the town centre, and working out of a studio that wouldn’t look out of place in Upstate New York, Fox began his latest body of work by painting somewhat pseudonymous self-portraits of a bearded, booze-swilling, aged artist. Having felt he was viewed with slight suspicion by the Cornish locals, perhaps unsure of the terse traveling painter recently arrived from America, Fox fabricated a fictitious cult that could be led by that aforementioned outcast alias. Alongside his feigned followers this lecherous make-believe man with a messiah complex could frequent the local pubs with ease, and is seen enacting semi-satanic rituals against the backdrop of Fox’s own favoured haunts such as The Engine Inn. The cult’s imagined insignia, an encircled droplet of the kind you might find on a bottle of washing up liquid or can of artisan filtered water, recurs throughout many of the paintings on display, the bogus benign emblem gaining perceived power through repetition.
The paradisal allure of the public house has long pervaded Fox’s practice, with his debut London solo exhibition ‘White Horses’ sourcing much of it’s subject matter from Shoreditch’s lamented strip-pub The White Horse. Therefore, here The Tinners Arms, a circa 700-year-old pub in Zennor just south-west of St Ives renowned for housing D. H. Lawrence for a fortnight in 1916, here hosts three demure dames, a couple of cats and the suspended spectre of a bald-head. The women’s period attire, initially collaged by Fox from vintage Vogue’s, imbue the painting with an old-fashioned aura further indicated by the inclusion of the date-stamped ‘38 in the lower right corner, alongside the initials A.C. This A.C is infamous occultist and writer Alistair Crowley, a demonic figure who looms large throughout the exhibition, as indeed he may do in the the myth and lore of many a Cornish mind. He is seen standing, mouth agape in front of the eponymous jaundiced hotel in 'Gurnard’s Head’, clad in his ceremonial animal pelts, cane in hand. In reference to Crowley, 1938 is a year deeply embedded in this history of Zennor, denoting the suspicious and untimely death of Mrs. Katherine Laird Arnold-Forster, known to many as Ka Cox. In may of that year, Cox was reported to have visited Carn Cottage, a small former barn overlooked by painter Patrick Herron’s abode at Eagles Nest, and become embroiled in one of Crowley’s sadistic, satanic sacraments, that ultimately left her dead and another male companion permanently institutionalized. Athough Crowley’s involvement is historically disputed, the erie episode was regularly recounted and Carn Cottage remains a site of some spooky speculation, a target for theifs, vandals and the daring or dared.
Despite early attempts to sever the personal from his painting practice, in The Man of the House Cuts the Bird Fox’s step-father takes centre stage, carving the Sunday chicken dinner outside of the artist’s childhood home on Bunker’s Hill, his chest emblazoned with a red-and-black ying-yang symbolic of a surf-brand popular in Cornwall at the time. Dolphins leap above the Rockwellian depiction of idealised, idyllic boyhood memory, a further recurrent symbol reminiscent of the dolphin plaques that adorn holiday homes and seaside cottages across the county.
Downstairs, the monumental sculpture The Centre of Earth serves as a monument to Cornish craft heritage, its trunk fashioned from a recycled cider press, the salvaged telegraph pole cobwebbed and complete with Leach Pottery mugs from the famed studio founded in 1920 by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. Assembled hand-carved wooden figurines decorate this maypole for a Fox’s created cult, while the phrase The Centre of Earth, The Middle of Nowhere, embroidered into the sculpture’s base by the artist’s septuagenarian grand-mother, acts as a poetic paean to his homeland. There are unavoidable comparisons to Cornwall’s cultural crown-jewel Barbara Hepworth’s more monolithic sculptures, as well as the standing stones and menhirs that litter the county’s landscape.
Fox’s naive style of painting, perhaps a result of his active avoidance of art school education, has been much mimicked in recent years, with many an Instagram imitation and pale plagiarism doing the rounds. So beyond the inevitable, easy narrative of a ‘triumphant’ return to London or a ‘prodigal’ return to Cornwall, as a friend of mine mentioned at the exhibition opening evening, it’s just really nice to see some “Danny Fox paintings actually painted by Danny Fox”