London

John Scott

Air Gallery

This show was my first chance to see an installation work by John Scott outside Toronto, where he lives. Scott made his name in Canada with big, smudgy drawings of advanced military machines and futuristic cars doing their stuff while seeming to emanate darkness. In the drawings’ margins, he would often scrawl bits of forbidding nomenclature and technical data. These images strike an anxious response in anyone who reads newspapers, but they are particularly compelling to Canadians, who tend to view the growth of American military “deterrence” as dangerously undeterred. Recently Scott has returned to the imagery of weapons, but for a couple of years he turned his attention fully to the victim population (including himself) implied by the systems of destruction that give him nightmares. His drawings were filled with rude figures and faces, many of them rabbit eared, with black blobs for facial features, like lumps of coal stuck on a snowman. The digressions into autobiography he allowed himself were less interesting in visual terms than for the little stories he wrote to accompany them, mingling memory with paranoid fantasy.

Scott has produced some unforgettable small drawings, but I think he is often at his best when he really stretches out, as he did in covering the walls of this gallery’s second floor. Scott set about making the mural the way he does all his drawings, with as little planning as possible. Limiting himself almost completely to black paint (with just a splotch of color here and there), he improvised what might be a panoramic vision of contemporary life, or of city consciousness, a vision blatantly incoherent as a whole but painfully expressive in its parts. The theme Scott wrung from his athletic improvisational wall drawing was the peculiar urgency of being able to see the forest and the trees but unable to connect them, which is a fair analogy to how it feels to live now.

In Scott’s mural, dozens of faces, figures, and some objects were jammed together without respect to their status as feasible symbols, portraits, inventions, memories, or habits of the artist’s hand. He seemed to have proceeded by marking out certain large episodes, such as a passage portraying a sort of Skylab-type aircraft flying over a Janus-faced figure marked “the Past.” The interstitial spaces surrounding these passages were then briskly carved up into smaller faces and figures which peered from the ambient blackness of paint with expressions ranging from helplessness to menace to the come-and-get-it leer of the fashion model. The least interesting aspect of the piece was its overt topical references to terrorism and superpower shenanigans. What made it fascinating was Scott’s ability to make a crude technique yield an astonishing range of expressive nuance. By using a stumpy brush and a colorless medium, he seemed to eliminate any possibility of nuance, yet every face he drew, no matter how slapdash, formularized, or cartoonish, was startlingly individual, even those that looked like smile buttons shocked into an anxious alertness they were never intended to express. The freewheeling allusiveness of Scott’s drawing was the other surprise here. With apparent un-self-consciousness, the piece seemed to whip up references to artists as diverse as Käthe Kollwitz, Paul Klee, Edvard Munch, Jonathan Borofsky, and Jackson Pollock.

The difficulty of judging Scott’s work is that it seems to respect nothing esthetically but the performative values realized willy-nilly in its own execution. As an improvisation, his installation was daring and impressive. As imagery, it was chaotic, raw, silly, and gruesome by turns, but often dramatically specific as visual information, even if the information it presented was purely fanciful.

Kenneth Baker