New York

Maria Scotti

Ruth Siegel Gallery

Maria Scotti’s paintings are more correctly drawings. Her sketches of classical nudes and other familiar passages from art history compete on the same canvas with her transcriptions of drawings by her sister’s child. Both sets of images are borrowed, yet Scotti seems to own the more sophisticated images, drawn with a delicate line that travels from an unbroken, unerring, Picasso-esque contour to one that repeats itself nervously, either to depict movement (as in a walking cat) or the artist’s changes of heart. In contrast to this elegant thoroughbred line, which is by turns skittish and certain, is the “child’s” drawing—awkward, blunt.

In many of these untitled paintings, which date from 1985–86, the female nudes exude a perfume of competent and relaxed guardianship; they seem to make the world safe for the scrawled figures. In the painting with the accomplished rendering of a cat, a cartoonlike mouse grins, unconcerned; its natural enemy, though physically so near, is worlds removed pictorially. The nudes, whose outlines fade in places, have the knowingness of the Cheshire cat; its ubiquitous grin is dispersed among the child’s figures, almost every one of which displays a “happy face” smile.

That smile is so impregnable, the primitive figure so irrepressibly good-humored, so complicated and mundane (these are not the efforts of a child prodigy), that they eventually seem to be in charge, to offer stabilization to the agitated “professional” marks. In all, the transcribed child’s drawings appear more present than their attenuated companions; though allotted less space in the compositions, their color is more vibrant, more grounded. In an odd reversal, their strength seems to take the fear out of art’s nightmares. The image of Saint George on his horse is paralleled by that of a happy child on her four-legged beast, while the dragon is rendered as a harmless, lovable stuffed animal. In another painting with the same iconography, the dragon’s slaying on one part of the canvas becomes a petting in another. The child’s universe here is one in which all life is cherished and all things are alive, where, for instance, the legs of a table end in pads identical to a little girl’s feet.

Finally, because that silly Modernist grid never abates, it comes to represent a real challenge to anything with long-established cultural credentials. Often placed at the bottom of a picture, a puppetlike creature pops up like a smirking jack-in-the-box, as if the artist’s high-strung line in the upper half of the canvas had been too tightly wound. You can almost hear it piping, "Hi, boys and girls, this is called ‘high art.’ But don’t worry, it can’t get out and hurt us—it’s only a picture.” The sense of irreverent interruption is as unconsciously Modernist as the cartoonist’s introduction of his own hand and pencil into the comic strip, a practice that certainly predates John Fowles’ authorial characters, if not Flann O’Brien’s. Scotti’s naïfs trail across the bottom of the canvas, like the numbers of a winning lottery ticket marching across the television screen during a favorite sitcom: a real-life fantasy disrupting an artificial one.

There’s no intimation that the child’s drawings are embryonic versions of the more sophisticated images. The break between them is pronounced; it seems impossible that the maker of one could ever become the maker of the other. Since both are generic, questions of which is the more original or authentic are usefully avoided, and the stage is set for an interesting battle between prefab “beauty” and a reconstituted "irrepressible life force.”

Jeanne Silverthorne