Controversial artist Norbert Kox opens a museum of his work in Gillett
GILLETT – Enthusiastic by some and praised by others, Norbert Kox’s art now gets its most comprehensive public accounting – not in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York – but on Gillett’s Main Street.
More than 120 pieces, created by the northeast Wisconsin artist over five decades, will be on display in his Apocalypse House and the NEW Museum of Visionary Art starting Saturday, June 30th.
Kox moves from New Franconia to Gillett to set up a place for his paintings to be exhibited, which he describes as “apocalyptic visual parables”. With vivid and often disturbing images, the highly detailed works depict evil and contain religious symbols and Bible verses that may require extended or repeated considerations.
“Some of the pictures look really dark, but there is always something that gives a glimmer of hope,” explained Kox. “It is as if no matter how dark a painting looks, there is something in it that gives a way out. It’s like a key. “
Kox, who will be 73 next month, said the pictures were intended as a warning against sin and idolatry.
“I’ve always said it’s like a poison label on a bottle of iodine. It has a little skull … that’s a negative symbol, but it’s positive because it shows you not to take this internally. “
Some people who first encountered Kox’s visions in the summer of 1999 at an exhibit at Brown County’s Neville Public Museum entitled “To Hell and Back” disliked what they saw and wrote letters to the Green denouncing his work Bay Press to Gazette.
Quoting a picture of a baby’s heart that had been cut out by a woman, a letter writer said the exhibit “depicts violence and gets away with it in the name of art.” Another said that Kox’s art was full of “naked bigotry” and that its “garish” colors evoked despair.
More than one said Kox was blasphemous and slandered Catholicism.
Other letters urged people to stay open, if not defend Kox’s painting. A pastor and a Bible study found it graphical, but the goal was to show the devil’s influence on the world.
“We believe that Kox has done humanity and Christianity a great service in creating and displaying this representation,” wrote the pastor.
Kox also has supporters across the country, not to mention around the world.
Norman J. Girardot, professor emeritus at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, heard about Kox in the late 1990s. In 2000, he curated an exhibition of works by Kox and three other men known for “outsiders” or “visionary” art.
Outsider artists are those who have little or no contact with the mainstream art world, while visionary art is based on spiritual or mystical themes to portray a broader vision of consciousness.
Girardot said a strong argument can be made for considering Kox significant not only to outsider art but also to art history.
“He has an authentic visionary message that has its own depth and fascination,” he said. “We don’t have to believe it or agree with it, but it tries to tell us something and sometimes we should pay attention to such things. In relation to the history of religion or the history of mysticism or the history of visionary experience, he is currently a significant presence in the world. “
Girardot coined the phrase “apocalyptic surrealism” to describe Kox’s work.
“His images almost glow, they have a certain intensity, but on top of that because he had an intimacy and a context in the Christian-Biblical tradition … with what he sees in relation to his visionary experience in many ways, one can call out On the whole, they look apocalyptic, ”he said.
Girardot said Kox’s art is valued in art museums across the country, including the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, INTUIT in Chicago, and The Getty in Los Angeles.
The curator of the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore believes “he’s one of the greats of this generation,” added Girardot.
As a comparative religious scholar who examined the similarities between art and religion and their overlaps, Girardot met Kox and other outsiders / visionaries over the years.
“Norbert’s story,” he said, “is absolutely amazing.”
At 17, the native Green Bay American was an alcoholic who dropped out of high school and joined the army. While stationed in Munich, he taught himself to paint. After leaving the service, he worked professionally on bespoke cars and motorcycles, but continued to drink a lot and was even part of a biker gang.
“I didn’t notice the pictures I was taking back then, but it was messages from my subconscious that tried to get me to change,” he said. “I thought I was just painting the surrealistic pictures, but so many of them were a kind of self-portrait. It was always me who went to my destruction. “
As his life began to change, so did the images.
“Instead of going to the destruction, I started having a vision,” explained the softly spoken Kox. “I started to wake up.”
After a bad drug experience at the age of 30, he sobered up, gave up his possessions, and retired to the woods near Suring. He built a personal chapel and a “Gospel Road” with biblical messages that lead through the forest to a gruesome life-size sculpture of the crucifixion, as his biography on the Visionary Art Museum website shows.
“I started thinking a lot more, praying more, and had some spiritual things in my life, then it got to the point where I gave my life to God,” he said. “I just didn’t want to be a villain anymore.”
Around 1980 he joined a conservative Pentecostal group and continued his Bible studies.
“I asked God to help me and it was like feeling the presence of God and turning my whole life around. I have turned my back on the old ways and as the Bible says you will become a new creature in Christ. Since then I only want to live for God. “
In 1985 he started studying at UW-Green Bay and then started painting full time.
Over the past two decades, Kox’s stature has grown. He travels regularly to universities or museums around the world to get involved or to act as artist-in-residence.
“There are many people who appreciate the true grandeur of his work as an artist and visionary, but in many ways there aren’t enough of them … he hasn’t quite cracked the New York crowd,” Girardot said. “It’s more valued in some areas outside of the US.”
In 50 years of painting, it is estimated that Kox has created at least 500 works.
Not all are apocalyptic. Occasionally, Kox created a so-called “Glory Painting” without dark visions. During the winters in the Bahamas for the past two decades, most of the works composed there were primarily uplifting.
“There are still a few warnings here or there,” he said.
Kox had worked from home in New Franconia for 25 years but had little space to show the fruits of his career. His brother Frank, who lives north of Gillett, started looking for a place.
Last summer he came across the abandoned building at 134 Hauptstrasse that was a district hospital decades ago.
“Though it would take a lot of cleanup and because it had been abandoned for 2 1/2 years, just left in a mess … when I saw all of these rooms they once had here for offices, I said this was going to be the perfect one Thing for my museum … everything worked out by chance. I never thought something like this would happen to me. “
Kox bought the building late last summer and moved his collection last year while he tidied up the building and hung the art with Frank.
Gillett Mayor James Beaton said he has not seen any art by Kox but will do so at the opening on Saturday.
“It’s certainly something that we hope will be a tie for the community and Main Street,” he said. “It’s just another thing for people to come to Gillett and check out.”
Frank Kox said there were visitors when the building, which he also runs an antique shop in the shop front, was being prepared.
“A lot of them wandered in when I was setting things up and doing things, poking their heads in, and sometimes they would stay back there (at the exhibition) for a couple of hours asking questions,” he said.
The response was very positive, he said, and several people said they wanted to come back and bring a friend.
“There was only one who looked like she was a little weak of heart and they needed a cup of coffee,” Frank said.
The opening of the Apocalypse House and the NEW Museum for Visionary Art will take place on Saturday
A festive opening of the Apocalypse House by Norbert Kox and the NEW Museum for Visionary Art will take place on Saturday, June 30th, from 2pm to 5pm.
The museum is located at 134 E. Main Street, Gillett.
The exhibited paintings were created in the USA and Germany, on the Bahama Islands, in Luxembourg, in Korea, in Africa, in Australia and on the South Pacific island of Samoa.
At 2 p.m. a ribbon is cut. The opening and reception are free to the public. Free refreshments are offered.
Some of the museum’s original works of art can be acquired by collectors. However, many remain in the artist’s private collection.
The museum has an antique and gift shop that sells prints of Kox’s artwork and some of the preliminary sketches on which his creations are based. Four books written by Kox are available for sale, one of which contains 124 color images of his work.
Future museum visits take place by arrangement, for personal or group trips or after special announcement for planned events. School groups, art groups and church groups are asked to plan private tours.
To schedule an appointment, email [email protected] or call 920-471-9326.