John Scott

This simple, untitled installation—John Scott’s sincere-biker-esthetic memento mori—invited reflection on the transience of life, virility, and fossil fuels. It consisted of 20 skulls-and-crossbones on paper warped to accommodate a light bulb placed behind each image that was, in turn, hooked up to a tape recorder. All the light bulbs flickered, feebly and brightly, in response to the sound of the artist singing Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” This matrix of drawings with lights connected by black cables recalled some of Christian Boltanski’s installations, which used similar means to memorialize the dead and mourn the passage of time. Just as in Boltanski’s work the overt connection of some of his pieces to mass violence (like his rephotographed portraits of Jewish schoolchildren in France in the ’40s) creates an excess of dread and horror that spills over to inform his more benign works, Scott’s concern with masculine excess, fascism, and war imagery in earlier works reverberates in this gentle installation.

Weill’s song plaintively evokes one man’s passage from courtship to dotage, and the sense that it all happened while he was looking the other way. The song’s roots in folk music enabled the installation to play off the nostalgic romanticism of the preindustrial pastorale. Because Scott sings in a plaintive, unmusical whine, with uncertain pauses and frequent throat clearing, the meaning of lyrics like “Now I’ve lost a few teeth, and I walk a little lame, and I haven’t got time for the waiting game” seems to weigh even more heavily. Scott’s meditation on the passage of time could easily seem benign and cyclical, rather than apocalyptic, but in the context of his work on issues of fascism, masculinity, and violence, death’s sweet nostalgia takes on a more global significance.

Weill’s words about the young rake stringing the girls along ironically evoke the tough macho subject that Scott teases throughout his work. Scott has been showing since 1975, and past work has both critiqued and reveled in white, working-class biker culture. He once incorporated his own tattooed skin, surgically removed, in a work called Selbst (Self, 1989): a comment both on Nazi mass murders (the tattoo included a number like those concentration camp prisoners bore) and the biker esthetic of self-inflicted pain. For the heavy-metal monument Trans-Am Apocalypse, 1988, Scott scratched the Book of Revelation into the entire surface of a 1984 muscle car. Now the expressive violence of his previous work has become more introverted, a kind of slacker esthetic. This transformation calls to mind a recent spate of articles about the “body of the ’90s”: softer, smaller, less muscle bound, less expensive to fuel and clothe. In this new work there is a gentle self-mockery. Here Scott invests the death’s head, a proud icon on belt buckles and knuckle rings, with the quietude of a much older tradition of death worship.

Laura U. Marks