The ge­nius of Joyce Scott

Our view: The Bal­ti­more na­tive and 2016 MacArthur award re­cip­i­ent has helped re­de­fine art and art­mak­ing in Amer­ica

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

We’re a long way from the cul­ture wars of the 1990s, when rad­i­cally new strate­gies and styles of art­mak­ing bumped up un­com­fort­ably against long-es­tab­lished no­tions of who artists are and what art is. Bal­ti­more-born sculp­tor, quil­ter and per­for­mance artist Joyce Scott was in the thick of those fights from the be­gin­ning, and her con­tri­bu­tions helped re­de­fine art and art­mak­ing in Amer­ica as vastly more in­clu­sive and so­cially aware en­ter­prises than ever be­fore.

That’s why we were grat­i­fied by the an­nounce­ment last week that Ms. Scott has been named one of the 2016 MacArthur Fel­lows, a re­cip­i­ent of the so-called “ge­nius grant” that car­ries an un­re­stricted stipend of $625,000 over five years. The award is given an­nu­ally to ex­cep­tion­ally tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als in a wide range of fields, and it is a fit­ting recog­ni­tion of Ms. Scott’s 30-year ca­reer cre­at­ing an im­pres­sive body of vis­ually stun­ning, exquisitely crafted art­works that by turns chal­lenge, in­spire, ed­u­cate and en­lighten all who ex­pe­ri­ence them.

Ms. Scott, 67, was born African-Amer­i­can and fe­male into a world in which nei­ther African-Amer­i­cans nor women were con­sid­ered im­por­tant ac­tors in the his­tory of Amer­i­can vis­ual arts. In the late 1940s, art was still al­most ex­clu­sively a white male pre­serve, and the whole canon of Western art, from Giotto to Jack­son Pol­lock, seemed to con­firm that nar­row fo­cus. It was not un­til the 1970s that the fem­i­nist move­ment be­gan to kick in the doors of the main­stream mu­seum world and de­mand that women artists be ad­mit­ted. Decades more would pass be­fore African-Amer­i­can artists, both women and men, achieved a sim­i­lar break­through.

Dur­ing all that time, Ms. Scott la­bored in the trenches of the new cul­tural mo­ment of rad­i­cal protest and iden­tity pol­i­tics that made black women artists’ unique gen­der and racial ex­pe­ri­ence in this coun­try cen­tral to the mean­ing of their art. Over that time, she has reg­u­larly ex­hib­ited in gal­leries and mu­se­ums across the coun­try, and her works are avidly sought by col­lec­tors. Her art dis­tills a painful his­tory of marginal­iza­tion and op­pres­sion into pow­er­ful so­cial com­men­tary, leav­ened by laugh­ter and tears, that speaks di­rectly to is­sues of racial in­jus­tice, gun vi­o­lence, shat­tered fam­i­lies and bro­ken com­mu­ni­ties that con­tinue to tor­ment us. She’s been a prophetic voice not only for Bal­ti­more but for a deeply di­vided na­tion still strug­gling to bind its wounds and live up to its high­est ideals.

Ms. Scott’s achieve­ments were rec­og­nized in her home­town in 2000, when the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art mounted a ma­jor Bal­ti­more artist Joyce Scott was rec­og­nized as one of the 2016 MacArthur Fel­lows. ret­ro­spec­tive of her work, one of the first such ex­hi­bi­tions ever given to an African-Amer­i­can artist at that ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tion. “Joyce Scott: Kickin’ It With the Old Mas­ters” re­flected the artist’s fa­mously out­spo­ken, ir­rev­er­ent and in­tensely per­sonal take on a so­ci­ety where racial, gen­der and class stereo­types con­stantly threaten to de­hu­man­ize the in­di­vid­ual, whose only re­sort may lie in what the poet Langston Hughes once called “laugh­ing to keep from cry­ing.” There’s plenty of hu­mor to go along with the anger and out­rage in Ms. Scott’s oeu­vre of in­tri­cately beaded tex­tile works and ex­trav­a­gant blown-glass sculp­tures, all of which at­test to the hu­man spirit’s stub­born re­fusal to give in to de­spair.

The com­ing year will see ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions of Ms. Scott’s work in New Jersey and in Tulsa, Okla., where she will col­lab­o­rate with the tex­tile artist Sonya Clark in a city re­cently wracked by protests over the killing of an African-Amer­i­can mo­torist by po­lice. She said she ini­tially agreed to do the show there be­cause of its his­tory as part of the Trail of Tears fol­lowed by Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes af­ter they were forced to give up their lands east of the Mis­sis­sippi River un­der Pres­i­dent An­drew Jack­son’s In­dian re­moval pol­icy in 1839. Now her prophetic vi­sion may well be en­gaged by more re­cent in­jus­tices there as well. She’s been a sem­i­nal fig­ure on the Bal­ti­more art scene, as well as na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, and we are pleased to take the oc­ca­sion of her be­ing named a MacArthur Fel­low to ap­plaud her life’s work.

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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