Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott

by Richard J. Powell


Greater recognition of John T. Scott's Renaissance man-like proficiency in drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and, most importantly, social and spiritual meaning in the visual arts came in June 1992 when he was awarded a "genius" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. One of the very few artists to receive this honor (and one of the very few grant recipients in the visual arts working outside of New York), Scott was both surprised and humbled by the award. But in Scott's characteristic, resolute fashion, he told a Times-Picayune reporter that "I'm glad somebody thinks I'm a genius, but it hasn't changed my perception of myself....Coming out of a minority situation, it's always been important for me to be centered and know what I am. Nobody made me credible except myself...."

The grant enabled Scott to finally purchase adequate studio space for the creation of more ambitious works, the storing of art, archives, and equipment, and a place for communion with fellow artists and other visitors. The studio that Scott eventually acquired facilitated his growing interest in aluminum as an especially adaptive medium for sculpture fabrication. For the next six years, Scott (with ready access to industrial-size aluminum sheeting and adequate space for welding and large-scale assemblage) pushed past previous constraints (spatial and material) to create works like For Danny Barker (1993) -- an improvisational, house-of-cards-like structure made from artist-manufactured geometric panels, wedges, and frames. Another comparable aluminum creation -- Scott's massive Spiritgates (1994) for the courtyard entrance to the New Orleans Museum of Art -- also fused geometry with jazz-like structures. The surfaces of these aluminum sculptures -- with applied abrasions and scorings -- have the feel of graffitied walls or abstract canvases, but without the paint: expressions of Scott's devotion to the two-dimensional and graphic arts even within the conceptualization of a three-dimensional creation.

The urban locus for much of late twentieth-century African-American ennui became Scott's referent for several bodies of work in the late 1990s. From his Urban Placemat Series (1998) of painted aluminum, surrealistic table settings (in honor of his father, a New Orleans cook) to his Urban Warrior/Playing Cards Series (1998-99), mixed media paper collages on wood, which equated gang-involved city youth with fatalistic playing-card royalty and other personages, Scott cast a dark eye on contemporary urban life. But even Scott's despair was usually tempered (as seen in Urban Warrior/Playing Cards Series: Eshu-nkisi, 1999) by an explosion of inviting colors and seductive patterns -- visual elements that, in conjunction with the subject matter, did not allow viewers to unthinkingly invoke simplistic edicts concerning inner city hopelessness.

Conversely, the psychological redemption and joie de vivre that people experience when listening to jazz, blues, and other forms of African-American music do not entirely obliterate racism, oppression, or similar patterns of suffering from having their impact on the inhabitants and culture of black America. It was perhaps this search for the emotional equilibrium and contradictions within Afro-America that Scott, following on the heels of his more recent urban subjects, created the Circle Dance Series (2001), a multi-sculptural assembly of bronzes on the intersecting themes of the blues, jazz, family, friends and, of course, New Orleans. Opting for the visual unity that comes from treated bronze's green, viridescent patina, Scott constituted a kind of stylized stageset/ dreamworld in the series's initial installation at the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans during the spring of 2001. The other unifying elements -- the repetitive use of see-saw appendages attached to cables that were strung singly, doubly, and more across large, circular forms -- gave the sculptures, whether wall-mounted or freestanding, the sensibility of fantastic maquettes-model-size constructions that nodded and swayed like their kinetic forebears (sculptures by Alexander Calder and George Rickey, the antebellum dancers in Congo Square, the traditional jazz funeral's "second liners").

Scott's evocation in the Circle Dance Series of world-renowned blues and jazz artists (like Danny Barker, Buddy Bolden, Billie Holiday, Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Billy Strayhorn, T-Bone Walker, and Benny Webster) zeroed in on African-American music as the basis for each sculpture's performance. Commemoration of the dead in Brother John is Gone (in memory of John Biggers), as well as celebrating new life in Kloee's Dream and Sydney's Playground (named after two of Scott's grandchildren) stretched Scott's Circle Dance metaphor to include the life/death cycle and how it, too, can be projected through applied wave theory and visual abstraction. That all of this could be somehow brewed in the great cultural cooking pot that is New Orleans was articulated by Scott in his Urban Cauldron I and II from the Circle Dance Series, a combination of upraised, cable-affixed paddles, fractured armatures, and flattened coils that metaphorically suggested a New Orleans chef's symbolic stove top, bubbling over with life, death, music and acid-green scrap metal.

The figural and abstract statements that came out of John T. Scott's experiences created their own, subtle choreography. Contemporary responses to Scott's work have clearly acknowledged the innumerable twists and turns that his work has taken -- the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious genuflections and signals that Scott's ever-evolving imagery has adopted. Conditioned by the aggregation of sights, sounds, spiritualities, and other stimuli in his native New Orleans, Scott accepted his artistic heterogeneity as a fact of existence in that world and, rather than suppressing it, aired it for all to see.


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