In 1992 Norbert H. Kox inherited a framed print, a portrait of Christ that had hung in a prominent position in his parents’ home in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This portrait was to inspire a series of skillfully executed works that exploit visual and textual puns to illustrate Kox’s deeply sceptical attitude towards organised religion.
Before he became an artist Kox worked on custom cars and motor bikes and was a member of the Outlaws biker gang. A former heavy drinker and drug user, he renounced alcohol and drugs in the mid-seventies at the age of thirty, when he ‘hit bottom’. After briefly joining a Pentecostal Christian group, he began to study the scriptures intently, concluding that organised religion produced a false understanding of Christianity that could only be surmounted by deep personal study of the Bible.
After ten years of isolation and study Kox returned to Green Bay and completed a university degree. He was now creating artwork as a way of communicating his messages and insights. His painting Oh Death Where is Thy Sting: Yesu Christ the Fountain of Life was shown at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and in 1991 he exhibited paintings and sculpture in the three-person exhibition Religious Visionaries at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin.
Kox has always used 19th- and 20th-century American religious imagery and statuary in his artwork, changing the context and meaning to call attention to counterfeit Christianity. In 1996 he decided to use his parents’ print as the basis for a painting. He knew that the image was widely accepted as the true representation of Christ and as a religious object imbued with devotional power, but he saw it in a different light. When he learned that the print was Head of Christ by Warner Sallman, an illustrator who produced the image as prints in 1940, he did some research and discovered that Sallman had plagiarised the image from Léon Lhermitte’s 1892 painting Emmaus, claiming that it had come to him in a vision.