Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on May 16, 2005 with the permission of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the New Orleans Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott
by Richard J. Powell
In his efforts to recount the picturesque scenes and bodily sensations of Congo Square from which the nineteenth-century New Orleans composer Louis Gottschalk obtained musical inspiration and source material, author Henry Edward Durell (under the nom de plume Henry Didimus) invoked a flood of images in the above epigraph. Geometrical shapes meet human bodies in this descriptive whirl of music-making and dancing. The interminable, incessant sounds of drumming, singing, crying, shouting, and rhythm pounding are conceived as a form of music that, on the face of it, has no end. Of course, the drummers did eventually pack up their crude instruments, as did the impromptu dancers their walking shoes, or the visitors their viewing positions. But amazingly the remembrances, the vibratory aftereffects, and the messages behind this music did not disappear. They continued their low decibel, throbbing presence long after the bulldozers and urban renewal had come and gone and, in the guise of jazz, blues, rap, hip-hop, and other forms of artistic expression (such as the visual arts), exists today.
There is in this vivid description something of the same, eternal character in the work of artist John T. Scott. From his early figurative art in welded steel, cast bronze, and intaglio printmaking, to his most recent forays into site-specific, public art and mammoth works on paper, Scott incorporates into each project a set of genetic-like markers that, accumulatively and sentiently, convey the history, struggles, and creative spirit of a New Orleans-born citizen of the world. And like many of his artistic predecessors in New Orleans, he references the past and present in his work through a melange of sensory catalysts -- music, dance, and other performance-based rituals -- and primary, architectonic forms -- squares, triangles, arcs, and circles.
Conventional art classifications such as figurative, abstract, realistic, or expressionistic take critics only so far when describing John T. Scott's art. While these and other art terminologies are not entirely useless -- throughout his career he has embraced all of these directions in art and more -- they fail individually to encompass the bigger preoccupations of this artist. One of his driving forces, arguably, is to create (by whatever requisite means or a deployment of media) visual critiques and/or commemorations within an improvisatory mode. With this objective uppermost on his creative agenda, Scott, at various times throughout his career, has made paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures, as well as explored various types and degrees of figuration and abstraction. Despite the heterogeneity of his materials, approaches, and techniques, it is his persistent self-launching into jazz-inflected visual interrogations and observances -- a by-product of his lifelong roots in New Orleans -- that brings this huge body of work together under one conceptual roof. One distinctive work of art can, therefore, constitute a formal or philosophical link to an individual, yet related, work. This phenomenon recurs until what one encounters -- as in this retrospective exhibition -- is something on the order of an accumulative, performance-based art experience: circulations through the methods and musings of an artist for whom improvised, dance-like movements are integral.
Circle Dance traces John T. Scott's creative output for forty years, relies on the art and aesthetics of the artist's birthplace and a part formalist/part thematic approach for structuring this retrospective. Metaphors abound in the categorizing and designating of this work. One mental picture in particular -- the previously referenced Congo Square "circle dance" -- alludes to Scott's performative engagement with three-dimensional object-making and the self-choreographed movements required by the viewer to fully experience his art (themselves gesturally comparable to the "ring dances" or "ring shouts" that were performed by peoples of African ancestry in the Caribbean and southern United States as late as the early twentieth century). But "circle dance" also refers to the city of New Orleans itself -- a place whose anthropomorphic aspect routinely conjures in the mind's eye bodies in motion.
John T. Scott's passions -- brilliant color, fluid movement, linear poetics, sharp commentary, social justice, among others -- are the products of a lifetime of discerning and fashioning: pursuits that, in tandem with one's personal genealogy, comprise an artistic performance of substantial proportions. That John T. Scott is both an artist of and from New Orleans is ideally acknowledged within the concept and meaning of a "circle dance" -- artistic perambulations down real city streets and critical gamboling around theories of form and signification.
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