She employs the seductive lure of beautiful objects to make sharp comments on race relations. She depicts acts of sexual violence and deconstructs cruel stereotypes in exquisite form.
The descriptions could apply to Kara Walker, the much-buzzed-about 37-year-old artist whose mid-career survey at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis opened in February to broad acclaim. But they also apply to Joyce J. Scott. Though Scott, 58, prefers beads, weaving and other craft techniques to her younger contemporary's media (films and paper cutouts), she arguably helped paved the way for work like Walker's.
At the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Scott's elaborate, beaded oeuvre includes examples that can be worn. A yellow, red and black necklace weaves together images of toothy grins and puckers, a pitch-black face and silhouette, and flowing script that gives voice to a playground slur: "Nigger Lips," also the title of the piece. Scott recounts a meeting with the collector who bought it. "She told me she puts it on backwards sometimes so people will get confused in reading it. Then when they read it, finally figure it out, then she has a long conversation with them about it," Scott explained last week by phone from her home in Baltimore.
Each glimmering bead demands attention, myriad sparkling dots in a pointillist landscape. Minuscule ones make a mesh of skin for Scott's figures; large ones protrude as a tooth or an eye. For a moment, entranced, you may miss the forest for the trees — by the time you realize what you're looking at, a helpless "oh my" might be all you can muster. Something similar happens to viewers in front of Walker's tableaus or Renée Stout installations like those exhibited last year at St. Pete's Arts Center. Call them women who walk softly and carry a big stick; as artists, they clearly refuse to maintain the polite silence surrounding race relations, past and present, in this country.
Such quietly overpowering encounters are plentiful in a 30-year retrospective of Scott's work at the Polk. (For those reluctant to make the Lakeland excursion, I urge you to give it a shot. Think of the museum as a diamond in the rough, if you want; the Polk often weighs in with shows as exciting as those at bigger Bay area venues.) This one includes 60 pieces that span Scott's career from 1970 to the early 2000s. Quilts, crocheted and woven textiles, mixed-media prints and collages complement a larger body of bead-based work that marries sculpture with jewelry and bristles with social issues.
The choice of beads is not by chance, Scott explains. Their exchange played a central role in the purchase of slaves from Africa and may have been part of the legendary barter for Manhattan that transferred the island from Native American to Dutch hands for approximately $24 worth of assorted trade goods. Scott, who describes her heritage as a mix of African-American, American Indian and Scottish, gained early exposure to beading, and to crafts in general, from her mother, Elizabeth Talford Scott, who, at 91, is a celebrated textile artist herself. Both Scott's mother and father came from impoverished sharecropping backgrounds in the Carolinas. "When you wanted something, you had to make it," Scott recalled. The Baltimore native, who still lives in the neighborhood where she grew up, learned the gamut of both fine art and craft techniques while earning a BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA in crafts at the Instituto Allende in Mexico.
A breakthrough moment came in 1976 at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, where Scott met a student who taught her the peyote stitch, or diagonal weaving, method of stringing beads together. It enabled her to build full, three-dimensional figures (rather than flat pieces) with beads, as dainty as 4 or 5 inches tall or over a foot high. "That changed what I do because all I need now is a needle and a thread and the beads. I don't have to have any kind of armature or other tools, which makes it a much more improvisational technique. ... It was like an awakening for me," Scott said.
That perfect unity of form and content is evident in pieces like "Nanny Now, Nigger Later" (1986) and "No Mommy Me I" (1991), both of which depict a mother figure — with black leather body and breasts and a maid's uniform — awkwardly grasping a pearlescent white baby, a fey creature made all the more vaguely sinister by its scintillating delicacy. Below, at the mother's feet, crouches a small brown or black child, abandoned. The poignant triangle captures the twisted psychology forced on black mothers as slaves and servants, forced to nurture, to the detriment of their own children, a white baby who would likely grow from object of affection into someone who would later revile her.
"Cuddly Black Dick II"I (1995) and "Cuddly Black Dick/Snared" (2003) are, for a moment, abstract enough that the black penises made of beads don't quite register. In the former, mere inches high, a white woman made entirely of beads — skin from glassy peach ones, frock from blue ones — sits on a bench, legs crossed demurely as she cuddles the shape in her right arm. In "Snared," a female figure with a bulbous glass head (just me, or a pipe reference?) sits on a chair above the dick, which appears to shoot a net of ejaculate out to envelope her. They're gasp-out-loud shocking — and funny — until the image of living as a black man, ensnared in a sexual stereotype at once aggrandizing and brutally reductive, hits full force.
Lynching comes up in several pieces, including a "Lynching Necklace" (1998) of branches and a figure's head that may be worn around the neck, and a sculpture of a tree and victim hanging by his toe that evokes the racist subtext of the child's verse, "Eenie meenie, minie, moe."
The nursery rhyme alludes to the idea, suggested several times in her work, that children gain experience of racism, inequality and other prejudices from a young age. To spark conversation, especially between young people and their parents, Scott will perform a spoken word piece at the museum on Sat., April 14, when two scholars will speak about her work as well. Children, Scott says, often get it quicker than their parents. "Sometimes it's a rude awakening for the parents who believe 'I have shielded my kid from this,' to have a child explain it to them," she says.
One thing you can count on: The refreshing frankness echoed in the title of her exhibit — Kickin' It with Joyce J. Scott.