Boundless: Judith Scott at the Brooklyn Museum
Judith Scott: Bound & Unbound at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
October 24, 2014 to March 29, 2015
200 Eastern Parkway (at Washington)
Brooklyn, 718 638 5000
Visitors to “Judith Scott: Bound & Unbound,” currently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, are confronted early with one of the artist’s first masterpieces, Untitled (1988), a substantial, architectural sculpture that has been hung on the wall, as in relief. Twined and tied around several bundles of sticks is a vivid array of materials: woolen yarns, fabric strips and plastic tape in a dazzling range of colors, along with green gardening wire of different gauges. The thicker wire loops and swirls around the heart of the structure, while smaller, shaggy-headed knots of the thinner-gauged wire peek out from various crevices like diaphanous sea anemones. At nearly five feet tall, it is one of the larger works on view, and also one of the few to hang on the wall rather than rest supine on a platform. Whether this deliberate curatorial decision would have been met with approval or not by Scott (who died in 2005 at the age of 61) is anyone’s guess. Not only did she never speak a word about her work, she gave no titles to any of her more than 200 sculptures and left no instructions about her intent for their display. In fact, once Scott finished a sculpture, she seemed to have little interest in ever revisiting it. These thorny details, among others, must be grappled with when staging an exhibition of her complex and endlessly fascinating work.
“One of the biggest challenges to presenting the work of an artist whose voice was sharply circumscribed by her life experience is to avoid adding layers of interpretation that can calcify into a narrative fable,” writes Catherine Morris, a co-curator of the present exhibition in the thoughtful catalogue that accompanies the show. Nonetheless, it’s nearly impossible to discuss Scott’s work without a modicum of information about her biography. She and her twin sister Joyce were born in Cincinnati, in 1943. While Joyce was intellectually typical, Judith was born with Down Syndrome. Her parents institutionalized her by age seven, and she remained so for the next 35 years, until Joyce secured guardianship of her twin, and brought Judith to live with her family in northern California. It was around this time that Judith was finally diagnosed as being profoundly deaf, a condition that was likely caused by an acute bout of scarlet fever she’d suffered in early childhood, but which had somehow gone undetected for decades. Deafness also then accounted for Scott’s muteness. For most of her life, she’d been almost entirely cut off from the world.
In 1987, Joyce Scott enrolled her sister at the Creative Growth Art Center, a place of radical experiment for artists with developmental disabilities. Rather than using art as therapy, Creative Growth is structured as a communal art studio, where participants are given freedom to work at their own pace with whatever materials suited their interests, and with minimal instruction. Instead, they work alongside typical, working contemporary artists who provide guidance or practical assistance only as needed. It was there, about a year after her initial enrollment, that Scott discovered textile arts, and completed her first wrapped work, and thereafter she worked steadily and regularly, five days a week for the next 18 years, right up until her death (her final work, from 2005, remained unfinished and is included here).
Scott became adept at her distinctive technique of ardent binding as her work matured. She always began with a found object that acted as the anchor of the sculpture—a crutch, a baseball bat, and a tabletop fan all found their way into her work, for example—and most frequently Scott wrapped it so abundantly that the original form is rendered unrecognizable. Occasionally, as in Untitled (1993), she attached small accessories, such as beads or stones to the exterior, but more often these small tokens found their way inside the work, and the exact contents of each sculpture is usually unknown, imbuing them with a totemic quality.
She also had a sophisticated sense of color and formal control. Another work, also Untitled (1993) finds an unknown object (or objects) completely encased in woolen yarn in a surprising color combination of lavender and burnt sienna. The shape Scott has rendered is womblike, with a pregnant belly of orange-brown yarn tapering, at two ends, into slender and elegant lavender protrusions. The work is so unexpected, so gentle, and so pleasing that one must resist the urge to bend down and caress it. And in Untitled (2003) Scott incorporated a long, gauzy, white ribbon and green mesh into a piscine object swathed in rich cerulean and aquamarine yarn. The highlights of candy-apple red yarn sporadically interwoven into this marine combination pack a visual punch, and one can’t help but think of strange fish, moving through mysterious waters at the ocean floor.
Gerardo Mosquera was speaking about the problems of ethnocentrism when he coined “The Marco Polo Syndrome” in 1992 and, in an essay of the same name, wrote, “What is monstrous about this syndrome is that it perceives whatever is different as the carrier of life-threatening viruses rather than nutritional elements… It has brought a lot of death to culture.” To cast a wider net, the argument also makes a similar point for artists who are different physically or mentally, or who make their work far outside the confines of an established art scene. “Art Brut” and “Outsider Art” are terms that feel increasingly and painfully outmoded, yet somehow seem to persist in contemporary discussions. Morris and Matthew Higgs, the show’s co-curator, have made an assiduous effort in the exhibition to note Scott’s developmental disabilities without resorting to interpreting her work solely through its lens, the wall text in the show is blessedly spare, imparting essential facts but refusing to dwell on them. Instead, the focus is where it should be: on an artist whose laborious and unique process resulted in an output that demands protracted consideration, but which in turn yields both mystery and discovery. “Bound and Unbound” dignifies Scott’s work, and finally invites the artist into the art-historical conversation, not as a marginalized “other,” but as a peer.