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Strange Fruit 

The weird, wonderful, disturbing world of Joyce Scott

Wednesday, Dec 27 2006
In Baltimore, where Elvis and Marilyn Monroe are patron saints, Joyce Scott is her own kind of legend. Now she brings her wares — beaded sculptures, political jewelry, prints, costumes, and performance videos — to San Francisco in an exhibition called "Kickin' It." Drawing her techniques from sources as varied as African beaded jewelry and tribal sculpture, her mother's narrative quilts, and Mexican Day of the Dead posters, she gives form to the events of the day, to episodes in recent African-American history, and to her own experiences as a black woman born and reared in "a former slave state." For 30 years, Scott has defied the expectations of her viewers; with lusty, bittersweet humor, repressed rage, and consummate craft, she testifies and agitates. You've never seen beads like these.

Lynching Necklace says it all. Intricate loops of black, green, and turquoise beads wind in glistening strands that support and hide (with their open-work flourishes) a large, three-dimensional, black-beaded head, cheeks puffed out and eyes bulging. The wearer of this necklace becomes a part of the sculpture. Scott says, "I make jewelry to be worn. And if it tells about scary, icky subjects, then so much the better for the person who has the cojones to wear it in public." This piece is beautiful and terrible at the same time.

The series of sculptures called "Cuddly Black Dick" features blond ceramic dolls, as bland and dreamy as a small statue of the Virgin Mary, who share benches, embrace, and tangle with beaded black phalluses — stand-ins for the whole body of the much-maligned black male. Scott mimics the worst fears of the traditional Southern bigot and makes us see black/white "coupling" in a new and humorous way.

Other striking pieces — No Mommy Me I; Nanny Now, Nigger Later; and No Mommy Me II — are kerchiefed and pigtailed mammy figures with big bosoms and big skirts, adroitly crafted of black leather and beads. Each caretaker cuddles or cradles a white beaded baby — one an outsized photo embellished with beads — and ignores her own child. In No Mommy Me I, the brown-beaded little girl is a flat shadow literally appliqued to her mother's skirt. In No Mommy Me II, the little girl of shiny black beads, pigtails flying, sprawls nearby but out of reach. Scott's own mother made her living as a housekeeper for white families.

In her few free moments, Elizabeth Talford Scott, Joyce's mother, created elaborate narrative quilts. Widely admired, they tell family stories with vibrant color and boldly embroidered figures. A role model and colleague to her daughter, Elizabeth has exhibited her work with Joyce's in many venues. Joyce Scott — who received a BFA in art education from the Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA from the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — also uses her wide-ranging travels as an entree to a variety of artistic traditions. She mines them all.

Scott sees herself as a "trickster" — a combination gadfly and healer much like the traditional truth-telling and often comically outrageous figure in many African cultures. She draws from those cultures in other ways, too. The Kongo people of Congo create minkisi — figurative sculptures bristling with metal fragments and draped with beads and shells, their hollow bellies stuffed with bundles of powerful substances and covered with mirrors — and in a series called "Jar Women," Scott creates her own minkisi. Their bodies are glass jars filled with shells, claws, and bones. Arms, legs, and breasts are leather, wool, wire, and beads; their faces, a mask or a doll's head. Scott heaps fragment upon fragment, beading passages of text ("Sometimes it feels like it will never come") and little blue chickens onto various appendages. These characters, randomly assembled, are homely, clumsy, and full of feeling, which fits with Scott's improvisatory working methods. She often begins a piece not knowing how it will end. "Sewing becomes a mantra," she explains. "It's this flow you get in. Beading is just a needle and thread with a bead on it."

Most of the sculptures are small, maybe hand-sized or lap-sized, with beading — usually two-dimensional, when used decoratively — that's wired and stuffed, twisted and extended. Heart Is a Lonely Hunter II, in contrast, is about three feet tall and uses much larger glass beads. The bronze-y yellow female figure with legs splayed and head and torso thrust down is split at the waist and spewing, "giving birth" to other characters, landscape fragments, musical instruments — a self-mocking "trickster" portrait.

Scott doesn't always stick with sculpture. There's a natural connection between beads and pixels, so it's not surprising that for a 1990 project sponsored by the NY Public Art Fund, Scott programmed the electronic billboard in Times Square with 20 phrases and images (such as "bonfire of the vanities"). Another large-scale piece, a floor mosaic titled Lips, was commissioned and installed in Washington National Airport (now Reagan International).

A video interview with Scott by students at the Maryland Institute and video excerpts from some of her live performance pieces are welcome additions to the exhibition. Together with numerous other sculptures, prints, and costumes, they round out our introduction to an artist who boldly deconstructs stereotypes. As she puts it: "I just want to keep making work that confounds me. I want to be confused, ignited, knocked down by my own work." Scott practices what she preaches — agitate, agitate, agitate.

About The Author

Lea Feinstein


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