Artist of the Week

J. Cletus Wilcox

September 28, 2022

Cletus Wilcox is a Louisville native now residing in New Albany, Indiana. As a self taught artist his processes are generally rooted in a sense of discovery and problem solving rather than a polished, pre planned execution. Although the aesthetics of his work are widely varied they are nearly all rooted in the interplay between form and emptiness, a central teaching in the Soto Zen tradition. As he continues to explore his own identity he has become keenly aware that creating a body of work that simultaneously exhibits a clear form while also negating that form is what interests him. His aim is to use artistic expression as a means of actualizing the reality of our own lives and the reality of the world in which we exist. The reality that forms are inherently empty and that emptiness is experienced through form.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do

I’m a visual artist practicing in my hometown of Louisville, Ky. I am also a climber of 27 years but have been steadily moving away from climbing over the past two years to make more room for my artistic ventures. I often find it difficult to categorize my work as I tend to wander quite a bit within different mediums and aesthetics but my practice is almost always centered in exploration and expression of the self. I am lay ordained in the Soto Zen tradition so this examination of the self within my artistic practice is informed by and an extension of my Zen practice.

NOSTALGIA FOR MY FATHER | Solvent Image Transfer, Acrylic and Oil Pencil on Canvas, 40” x 40”, 2020

What made you want to be an artist?

The calling for me to create is a mystery to me but I usually compare it to the sensations of being hungry or thirsty as it feels like a natural urge that is born out of some kind of existential necessity.

Could you talk about the frequent appearance of gold and gold leaf in your work?

For me, value or the perception of value is an important medium in my work. I am interested in the malleability of value and challenging the ideas of value being inherent and unchanging. The use of gold leaf in my work is often used in conjunction with seemingly valueless materials such as carpet padding or discarded textiles as an attempt to explore what real value is. My interest in value as a medium entered my practice during the pandemic and the emergence of the so-called essential worker. I am interested in illustrating how context can shift perception revealing the inherent value in people, places and things.

UNTITLED (THE INNER BEAUTY OF QUEER IDENTITY) | Acrylic Image Transfer, 23 Karat Gold Leaf, Charcoal, Oil and Oil Pastel on Canvas. 48” x 24” 2021

Do you have any daily rituals?

I do. My mornings usually begin at about 4:30am with journaling and sitting in formal meditation. I’ve found these practices to be essential for priming myself for the day. Creativity requires me to be as open as possible and early morning writing and sitting zazen have become indispensable ways for me to access that kind of openness.

What considerations do you have in mind when working in different materials, such as your work in textile and collage versus painting?

For me the process of creating is visceral and I think that’s really what guides me in the directions and materials that I choose to use. Sometimes I feel like painting. Sometimes I feel like ripping up material and reconstructing it. I’ve learned to respond to myself and what I feel like I need from the process that day. I’m often working on multiple projects at the same time so I usually have the option of catering those internal urges.

UNTITLED | Oil, Acrylic, Spray Paint, Oil Pastel, Chalk Pastel, Graphite and India Ink on Fabric Mounted on Arches Paper (Framed) 22” x 30” 2017

What are some standout shows you’ve seen recently?

Gou Pei’s exhibition of couture at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, California was a real standout for me.

How did you start working with spray paint and what role does it play in your practice?

I initially started working with spray paint because of the immediacy of the medium. At the beginning of my career I tended to work quickly and spray paint and its relatively short drying times allowed me to do just that. As I’ve matured in my practice my process has become more deliberate and I’ve slowly moved away from spray paint and acrylics in general.

Who do you consider your influences?

Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Blinky Palermo and Andy Warhol are probably the artist’s that have had the most impact on my practice and my general aesthetic. As far as living artists are concerned I am very drawn to the work of David Ostrowki and Sebastian Helling.

UNTITLED | Spray Paint on Canvas 24” x 24” 2018

What are your preferred sources for collage material?

When it comes to choosing materials for collage I’m mostly drawn to what’s been discarded. I’m unsure why exactly but there is something about finding materials instead of sourcing them that interests me. As I said earlier, value and it’s malleability are important parts of the work I’m currently focused on and I find that discarded items open me up to those exact questions of value and it’s perception.

Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

Currently I am working on a solo exhibition which is a culmination of all of the work I’ve been doing over the past seven or eight years. The collection is really an extension of my own journey through queer shame and identity. The paintings all begin with one or more image transfers of an antique flat fan I found in a bin at a flea market here in Louisville. After I have the image transferred to the canvas I begin working on top of the transfer often times reducing the work back to the original image. The ideas behind the collection are rooted in my own journey from original identity or sense of self expression through to the constraints and inauthenticity of shame and back again to the rediscovery of who it is I actually am and how I actually want to exist in this world. The collection is called Brightness Hiding and it’s the work I am most excited about at the moment.


Interview Conducted by Milo Christie