Laughter, tears and social commentary


Joyce J. Scott's BMA show challenges old definitions of what is art and who are artists.

January 23, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

One of the seminal influences on contemporary art has been feminism, which has transformed the very definitions of the terms "art" and "artist" in the postmodern era.

That influence, and the enormous changes it has wrought over the last 30 years, is everywhere evident in the art of Joyce J. Scott, the Baltimore-based fabric artist, sculptor, painter, jewelry maker and performance artist who is the subject of a landmark retrospective that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"Joyce J. Scott: Kickin' It With the Old Masters" celebrates the career of a home-grown African-American woman artist who came of age in the post-1970s world of identity politics and political art, an era in which women, possibly for the first time in history, assumed a leading role as creative artists, critics and curators.

"Kickin' It" is a deeply felt, highly personal work that is by turns funny and outrageous, serious and mocking. It often adopts a mask of high camp or comedy in order to unmask painful social realities. In this sense, Scott owes a clear debt to the long African-American tradition of humorous storytelling that the poet Langston Hughes once called "laughing to keep from crying."

Scott can make you laugh or cry or both. "Kickin' It" is a reflection of her outspoken, irreverent and highly individual take on life. Her art skewers a world in which stereotypes of race, gender and economic status threaten to completely submerge the individual under the weight of bigoted ideas. The main impression viewers are likely to bring away from this show is of a woman full of life and tough love who has shared a great gift of herself and her art.

You can view Scott's works as either outraged protest or biting satire. Either way, the artist is a passionate and persuasive debunker of racist and sexist myths that reduce people to a few readily recognizable physical attributes or body parts.

Scott's art draws heavily on informal craft traditions -- quilting, beadwork, sewing, etc. -- and on Mexican and Native American folk art, as well as on the formal traditions of Western painting and sculpture. And it packs a major multicultural wallop.

In that sense, the Scott retrospective, which runs through May 21, marks a major sea change for the BMA. In honoring Scott, it implicitly acknowledges the broader role women artists have played in shaping a new way of looking at art and the role of the artist in society.

At the same time, the museum's showcasing of an internationally renowned regional artist signals a new openness to a local art community that often has felt neglected by the city's premier contemporary art venue.

Finally, the Scott retrospective undoubtedly will be viewed as a signature statement for the BMA's newest director, Doreen Bolger. "Kickin' It" marks the museum's first exhibition planned and executed wholly under the leadership of Bolger, her-self an embodiment of women's newly empowered status in the art world.

The show begins even before visitors enter the museum, with a metal self-portrait of the artist mounted above one of the majestic stone lions that guard the doors to the museum's original grand lobby, which has been refurbished and reopened for the first time in 15 years for this show.

The artist seems to be dancing on some sort of yoke -- a reference both to the ornamental collars worn by East Africa's Masai people and a symbol of the legacy of American slavery. Thus the artist announces at the outset that the work within will be both personal and political.

Inside, about 60 of Scott's artworks are displayed in two galleries that constitute the core of the retrospective. In addition to these works, about 20 of Scott's pieces have been installed in other locations around the museum.

These latter works are paired with objects from the BMA's permanent collection. These pairings reflect or comment ironically on social issues raised by the artist.

For example, the museum's large bronze cast of Rodin's "The Thinker" is paired with a glass bead sculpture of a lynched man whose body is covered with racist slurs.

Scott's figure floats above Rodin's sculpture like a comic-strip speech balloon -- a reference, perhaps, to the way in which invidious stereotypes originate as pure mental images unconnected to reality.

The retrospective galleries display a range of Scott's work in fabric, beadwork, prints and sculpture done over the last 25 years. Here the works are grouped broadly in terms of themes that have concerned the artist as a woman, as an African-American and as member of an often-beleaguered inner-city urban community.

In "Repent," for example, one of six large lithographs from Scott's "Soul Erased" series on the theme of urban gun violence (created in collaboration with Baltimore-based Goya Girl Press), a loosely sketched winged angel vainly attempts to turn a young boy away from the consequences of his own impulsive actions.

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