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Laughter, tears and social commentary; Joyce J. Scott's BMA show challenges old definitions of what is art and who are artists.


One of the seminal influences on contemporary art has been feminism, which has transformed the very definitions of the terms "art" and "artist" in the postmodern era.

That influence, and the enormous changes it has wrought over the last 30 years, is everywhere evident in the art of Joyce J. Scott, the Baltimore-based fabric artist, sculptor, painter, jewelry maker and performance artist who is the subject of a landmark retrospective that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"Joyce J. Scott: Kickin' It With the Old Masters" celebrates the career of a home-grown African-American woman artist who came of age in the post-1970s world of identity politics and political art, an era in which women, possibly for the first time in history, assumed a leading role as creative artists, critics and curators.

"Kickin' It" is a deeply felt, highly personal work that is by turns funny and outrageous, serious and mocking. It often adopts a mask of high camp or comedy in order to unmask painful social realities. In this sense, Scott owes a clear debt to the long African-American tradition of humorous storytelling that the poet Langston Hughes once called "laughing to keep from crying."

Scott can make you laugh or cry or both. "Kickin' It" is a reflection of her outspoken, irreverent and highly individual take on life. Her art skewers a world in which stereotypes of race, gender and economic status threaten to completely submerge the individual under the weight of bigoted ideas. The main impression viewers are likely to bring away from this show is of a woman full of life and tough love who has shared a great gift of herself and her art.

You can view Scott's works as either outraged protest or biting satire. Either way, the artist is a passionate and persuasive debunker of racist and sexist myths that reduce people to a few readily recognizable physical attributes or body parts.

Scott's art draws heavily on informal craft traditions -- quilting, beadwork, sewing, etc. -- and on Mexican and Native American folk art, as well as on the formal traditions of Western painting and sculpture. And it packs a major multicultural wallop.

In that sense, the Scott retrospective, which runs through May 21, marks a major sea change for the BMA. In honoring Scott, it implicitly acknowledges the broader role women artists have played in shaping a new way of looking at art and the role of the artist in society.

At the same time, the museum's showcasing of an internationally renowned regional artist signals a new openness to a local art community that often has felt neglected by the city's premier contemporary art venue.

Finally, the Scott retrospective undoubtedly will be viewed as a signature statement for the BMA's newest director, Doreen Bolger. "Kickin' It" marks the museum's first exhibition planned and executed wholly under the leadership of Bolger, her-self an embodiment of women's newly empowered status in the art world.

The show begins even before visitors enter the museum, with a metal self-portrait of the artist mounted above one of the majestic stone lions that guard the doors to the museum's original grand lobby, which has been refurbished and reopened for the first time in 15 years for this show.

The artist seems to be dancing on some sort of yoke -- a reference both to the ornamental collars worn by East Africa's Masai people and a symbol of the legacy of American slavery. Thus the artist announces at the outset that the work within will be both personal and political.

Inside, about 60 of Scott's artworks are displayed in two galleries that constitute the core of the retrospective. In addition to these works, about 20 of Scott's pieces have been installed in other locations around the museum.

These latter works are paired with objects from the BMA's permanent collection. These pairings reflect or comment ironically on social issues raised by the artist.

For example, the museum's large bronze cast of Rodin's "The Thinker" is paired with a glass bead sculpture of a lynched man whose body is covered with racist slurs.

Scott's figure floats above Rodin's sculpture like a comic-strip speech balloon -- a reference, perhaps, to the way in which invidious stereotypes originate as pure mental images unconnected to reality.

The retrospective galleries display a range of Scott's work in fabric, beadwork, prints and sculpture done over the last 25 years. Here the works are grouped broadly in terms of themes that have concerned the artist as a woman, as an African-American and as member of an often-beleaguered inner-city urban community.

In "Repent," for example, one of six large lithographs from Scott's "Soul Erased" series on the theme of urban gun violence (created in collaboration with Baltimore-based Goya Girl Press), a loosely sketched winged angel vainly attempts to turn a young boy away from the consequences of his own impulsive actions.

The last panel of the series depicts the spirit of the boy emerging into a new phase of existence, leaving it up to the viewer to determine whether that resurrection takes place in this world or in some other realm.

Scott's glass bead sculptures have long been her vehicle for exploring a range of difficult subjects.

In works like "No Mommy Me" and "Mar Woman IV," for example, Scott evokes the cruel ironies of a white society that denigrates the humanity of black women while simultaneously entrusting to them the care of its children.

Scott, whose own mother worked for many years as a nanny for wealthy white families, expresses her personal feelings of abandonment and loss through such figures, which often contain family mementos and other autobiographical oddments.

"Man Eating Watermelon" depicts a struggling figure being devoured alive by one of the oversized fruit, a graphic visualization of the way in which bigotry's victims are consumed by the symbols that define them.

Not all of Scott's work is so confrontational. Many of her earlier jewelry and clothing designs, such as "Chinese Panthers" (1974) and "Collar" (late 1970s) are simply exquisite. These pieces draw on Native American, Mexican, Asian and African patterns to convey the richness of non-Western artistic traditions.

Some visitors to this show undoubtedly will wonder whether such works, with their colorful yet unconventional materials, qualify as "real" art in the same sense as, say, a painting by Cezanne or a sculpture by Rodin.

The answer is intimately tied up with the revolution in ideas and practices that has transformed the art world over the last 30 years, a transformation that was in large part initiated by the feminist critique of established art masterpieces.

One of the first salvos in that movement was a 1971 essay by historian Linda Nochlin titled "Why There Are No Great Women Artists."

In that work, Nochlin argued that definitions of art are fluid and subject to change by powerful elites and cultural institutions that historically have been dominated by white males.

Nochlin's essay foreshadowed the emergence of a generation of gifted women whose work helped shape a new postmodernist aesthetic -- artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Carol Schneemann.

By the end of the 1970s, the feminist critique had laid the foundations of a new style, loosely defined as postmodernism, whose concern with content over form, with questions of how art "means" rather than what art "is," challenged all previous judgments about quality in art.

Scott's work exemplifies many of the issues associated with this new view.

Her appropriation of visual elements from both "high" and "low" culture, her use of non- conventional materials -- beads, fabric, feathers, etc. -- and her pointedly ideological agenda that challenges entrenched attitudes and prejudices are all characteristic of the postmodernist stance.

Ironically, today feminist theory has been accepted as a respectable interpretive strategy by the very mainstream it once criticized. Now that it is itself a part of the network of museums, art schools and commercial galleries, one can only speculate whether it will retain its transformative power in the future.


What: "Joyce J. Scott: Kickin' It With the Old Masters"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive at North Charles Street

When: Through May 21

Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission: $6 adults; $4 students and seniors; 18 and under free

Call: 410-396-7100

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