Lily Cox-Richard is challenging whiteness in the art world. 

By Gianni Zorrilla, Photos courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art

Upon stepping into the Blanton Museum of Art’s contemporary gallery, visitors meet the watchful gaze of a she-wolf. Her gaze is stern yet alluring, rendering passersby fixated by her penetrating eyes.

The original Capitoline Wolf is perhaps one of the most recognizable icons of ancient mythology. Standing 30 inches high, the bronze figure symbolizes the founding of Rome in all its twisted glory. However, the replica currently on display at the Blanton deviates from the original not only in medium, but in message. Lily Cox-Richard does not abide by antiquated standards of perfection. In fact, she critically questions them.

“I think, as a sculptor, I always want to be surprised by my own work,” Cox-Richard said in a talk at the Blanton.

The Richmond, Va.-based artist’s latest exhibit, She-Wolf + Lower Figs, casts vibrant color on to long-accepted artistic notions. There is an undeniable whiteness to antiquity. Take a look at the most esteemed classical sculptures, mighty in stance and musculature but lacking in color. These figures carry an air of prestige; something about them suggests they are to be revered. But why? Cox-Richard works to answer this question.

While many Greek and Roman marble sculptures were originally polychrome—embellished in bright colors and patterns—they wore off with the passage of time. The assumed whiteness of ancient art has perpetuated myths of idealism throughout the ages as association between whiteness and aesthetic eventually became canonized in Western art. This conjured negative views toward color. 

“Even in scholarly articles, [color is] described as flamboyant and garish and gauche and always kind of over-the-top distasteful,” Cox-Richard said. “We’re so used to seeing them [as white] that we can’t imagine them in color, and I think that says so much about how we have privileged whiteness and idealized whiteness as this more pure form.”

Her Blanton exhibit responds to this narrative and engages its history critically without perpetuating the problems. Experimenting with scagliola, the ancient Roman practice of pigmenting plaster to prevent it from wearing away, Cox-Richard created her she-wolf.

The museum currently hosts the William J. Battle Collection of Plaster Casts, a set of 19th-century replicas of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture often used for study, gleaming white on the museums first floor. Cox-Richard’s She Wolf + Lower Figs takes two plaster casts from the collection, draping them in colorful tulle. The resulting psychedelic-patterned she-wolf stands before its predecessors upon an aggregate-adorned sidewalk titled Ramp.

Cox-Richard, who is also an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, urges viewers to think about the ways in which they understand whiteness and presume it as a natural or ideal state. 

“We all have to deal with race and racism,” Cox-Richard said. “And I think that the more we can acknowledge the problems with the invisibility of whiteness as something that we kind of naturalized and neutralized then we can start to dismantle the system better.”

Cox-Richard also draped the Battle Cast collection’s Apollo Belvedere in colorful tulle. While the exhibit is temporary, she is content with its ability to spark conversation. 

“That tulle will come off of the Apollo, but it will have been there,” she said. “So, there will be an image in circulation of Apollo in that moment. It becomes a layer that has to then be addressed, and if we forget again about polychrome, it is a more willful forgetting.”

Cox-Richard’s she-wolf does not feature babies Romulus and Remus underneath her like the Capitoline Wolf. The babies were a later addition to the sculpture; the original was not made to feed them.

“Looking throughout other art histories, there are a lot of different ways that a she-wolf is used in mythology, being a kind of nurturing but mystical, fierce being,” she said. “I wanted to see her back in that role.”

The she-wolf emanates power. Much more than a maternal figure, she possesses her own unique narrative. Cox-Richard does not erase problematic figures but renews lost visibilities and reshapes the perception of perfection.

The exhibit is open until Dec. 29.


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