New York

Joyce Scott

Richard Anderson Fine Arts

The Baltimore artist Joyce Scott has had shows all over the country, but she exhibits relatively rarely in New York, which is a considerable pity. Working with beads, glass, and other lucent and tactile materials, Scott seems to operate at a psychological distance, as well as a geographical one, from younger black artists like Lorna Simpson and Glenn Ligon, who have used cool, minimal, conceptually derived methods to discuss African-American identities. Among the logics I believe have motivated those artists is the ambition to produce images that deal with their chosen subjects without accommodating any of the stereotypical assumptions about race that are so embedded in American culture. I doubt Scott would argue with such a goal, but she herself seems to be deeply in touch with folk and craft traditions that she feels a need to honor, and she also, like Kara Walker, will sometimes confront the stereotype directly (the mammy doll, for example). When this happens Scott often leans on her wicked sense of humor to elucidate her intentions. But the real distinction of her work lies in its meld of these social concerns and comic notes with another property altogether: the preciousness, in the most numinous sense of the word, that her work communicates through the light it captures in the intricate clarity of its surfaces.

The most striking piece in the recent show was Clear and Present, 1999, a portrait of the artist as literally radiant, yet at the same time solid and fleshly. Made of limpid but weighty glass, this crystalline statue, a little under four feet high including the base, articulates a forceful language of the body. A naked woman (I am told the model is Scott herself), her face entirely covered with pearlescent beads, raises her arms, holding in one hand a smaller female form, in the other a head, both similarly bejeweled. Part supernatural—sprouting from her shoulder is a third hand, which holds within its palm, drawn in beads, a diamond, a symbol both mystical and decorative in many cultures-—she is also earthily, even wittily feminine, big-hipped and full-figured. Etched on her lower stomach is a simple sign for a house, showing her womb as a shelter, and the loads she carries in her arms make her the bearer of both mind and new life. She stands bowlegged on a pedestal whose steel frame is covered in serpentine clear plastic tubing that suggests an arterial network and the circulation of blood; but instead of visceral corporeality this base, and in fact the whole piece, evokes translucency and brilliance, a transfiguration of the body into light.

The title Clear and Present, of course, quotes the legal phrase “clear and present danger,” and the implication may be that an African-American woman this clear and this present will pose some threat to the state. Out to Dry, 1987, makes the sharp edge in Scott’s humor more apparent: A black washerwoman, a bandanna around her head, her body and dress made of dark leather, hangs a laundry line not with clean clothes but with shiny white body parts. Scott’s political consciousness is an important part of her work, but just as telling is her sense of visual and physical pleasure as a force in human affairs, a counterweight to mortality.

David Frankel