The fantastic wire-and-bead sculptures of Joyce Scott, on view at Goya Contemporary (aka Goya Girl Press), are miniature dissertations on politics and society, served up with an utterly outrageous sense of humor.
Invariably, it's the humor that people respond to first, if for no other reason than that most of Scott's topics are almost too painful to contemplate without the therapeutic agency of laughter.
What, after all, can one say about race, class and gender in America that doesn't sound like either the proverbial "litany of complaint" the country seems so eager to avoid, or the smug rationalizations of a nation in denial? (In October, an exhibition of Scott's work scheduled to open this year at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., was abruptly canceled after staff decided its sexual and racial imagery might offend viewers. The work had appeared without incident at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2000.)
These days, nobody really wants to hear about lynching, discrimination, poverty, broken families, drug addiction, bad schools and the rest of that long laundry list of social dysfunctions whose consequences are all too visible and too depressing for a country brought up on canned laughter and TV happy talk.
So Scott dissembles behind her well-practiced mask of kitsch and high camp, doing in visual terms what the poet Langston Hughes called "laughing to keep from crying." She's basically a storyteller, after all, and her artwork likewise employs the traditional black storyteller's narrative device of deflecting tragedy with humor.
Beads, for example, aren't supposed to be high art materials, yet in Scott's hands they become as plastically expressive as bronze or marble.
In the diminutive diptych titled I Left My Wife For You, the doll-like figures of the two lovers seem to float past each other on the wall, as isolated and remote from one another as they are from the materialistic consumer society that abets their selfish behavior.
Birth of Mammy #4, an autobiographical work of great subtlety and emotional complexity, is constructed around a glass armature that forms the body of the figure. The woman's face, however, is fashioned entirely out of free-form beading.
The work's title refers to Scott's own childhood feelings of abandonment and loss on the frequent occasions when her mother had to leave home to work as a nanny for a wealthy white family.
The piece is rich with symbolic references, including a watermelon that conjures up a long history of negative stereotypes that portray blacks as indolent menials, and a mysterious smaller figure that grasps a pair of scissors, possibly with the intent of severing the maternal bond.
The brightly colored and beaded sculpture, so effervescent in appearance at first glance, turns out to be a visual metaphor for the painful separation of a mother and daughter as well as the irony of a society that denigrates the humanity of black women while at the same time entrusting them with the care of its children.
This is highly personal work that is by turns funny, ironic, outraged and despairing.
It reveals Scott - who in addition to her sculpture is also a fabric artist, printmaker, painter, jewelry designer and performance artist - as a wholly original artistic personality and as one of this city's most irrepressible - and irreplaceable - treasures.
The show runs through Jan. 22. The gallery is at 3000 Chestnut Ave., Suite 210. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. Call 410-366-2001 or visit the Web site www.goya girl.com.