One of the works in Joyce Scott's current show at Washington's Corcoran Gallery is called "No Mommy Me, II." A black woman, made of beads and leather, holds up a picture of a white baby, all plump and pampered looking, while behind the two a black child, presumably the womans own, sits on the floor unattended.
The point is that she isn't being a Mommy to her own child, she's being a Mammy to the white baby and that involves neglecting her motherly duties. One may ask what's responsible for this person being a Mammy, and there's no one answer to that: her poverty, her history, her color, the white child's parents and their history and their color and their affluence, and in a sense the white child itself. So this is a layered work that points to the history of black-white relations in America.
It's serious; but at the same time it's funny. The picture of the white child is much too big in scale for the rest of the piece; it looks ridiculous. And there's something amusing about the other two figures, too. The work provokes thought without anger; as Scott has said of her work, "I think I'm incredibly confrontational, but it's a safe confrontation."
A Baltimore artist, her work has received wide recognition in exhibitions from New York to California to Japan and the Netherlands. The Corcoran show, called "I-con-no-body/I-con-o-graphy," brings together 30 works of sculpture and handmade paper going back to 1985 (but mostly from this year).
In making her small-scale sculpture, Scott uses beads, referring to the handicraft traditions of her ancestors. The beads themselves, the small scale, and the humor with which Scott invests her works make them deceptively unthreatening in appearance. But the message that sinks in isn't fun, for Scott gives form to stereotypes in order to challenge them.
"Man-Eating Watermelon," in which, yes, a watermelon eats a man, is about the stereotype of the smiling, watermelon-eating, easily pacified black -- a stereotype which devoured individuality and dignity. "Lips," a pair of seductive red lips on a red pedestal, is about the Hollywood -- and by extension American -- stereotype of woman as sex object: All you see, and want, are the lips (i.e., the body).
Looking at examples of Scott's work over a period of seven years it's possible to say that they have become visually less complex and more effective. Her sculpture is better than her handmade paper works. And seeing this many works together does lead to recognition that she's making some of the same points repeatedly; but, to some degree because of the element of humor, the cumulative effect is neither strident nor boring.
Where: Corcoran Gallery, 17th Street and New York Avenue, NW, Washington
When: through Nov. 17.
Call (202) 638-3211.