Joyce Scott is an artist who adores to work. Her love of labor—whether in drawing and sculpting, making jewelry, or performing—defies hierarchical conceptions of art that tend to value concept over making, idea over use, or “pure” over practical. Respectful of the joys of designing and crafting, Scott’s oeuvre, in diverse media, engages process as well as product. Be it a sculpture, a pendant, or an acting-out piece, her work raises issues and poses questions regarding the object, its function, and context. Blessed with a familial lineage of craft and industry as well as storytelling, Scott’s artistic trajectory is characterized by a celebration and innovation of tradition and narrative. Her parents and grandfather, an ex-slave, after long days of work would make things skillfully based on their knowledge of basket-weaving, caning, black-smithing, and cotton spinning, as they told stories all the while. Underpinning her oeuvre are themes and concerns that relate dynamically with representation, perception, and subjective agency. Redeemed from marginality, techniques and forms that are grounded in African-American history are the means by which Scott expresses contemporary experiences that go beyond issues of identity to address art, knowledge, and power. While her familiarity with cultural location and specific histories that have marked her as a woman and artist are crucial to understand her work, Scott is an African-American dealing with vital contemporary issues that are global.
The medium Scott most favors for her visual narratives is the bead. Beads are marvelous; they are sparkling, inexpensive mysteries that connect the artist to the past. Beading gives Scott a sense of personal quest and history, since beads were the materials traded for her people in Africa and in the New World. Each bead is a wonder, a triggering device for memory as well as a fetish. As fetishes, beads and objects made with them are layered with energies and desires: they are objects of projection. Beads are an integral part of ritual and prayer as well as practical counting devices and jewels that signify displaced desire. In all instances, when handled and/or worn next to the skin, or even in her large-scale public art work executed for Charleston-Spoleto (1992), beads have a texture, a feel that one doesn’t forget. Tactility and performative gestures of the labor of love involved are related: each bead and motion is linked not only to the past, but more so to the pure present of the act. Revelation takes place in the “here and now” and not “afterwards” as a result of sacrifice.
All that cannot be resolved visually Scott “acts-out” in her performances, which she calls squiggles, a term that refers to drawing in space with her voice and body. In a humorous, bitter-sweet fashion, Scott deconstructs stereotypes of an artistic, cultural, and social nature to challenge and create awareness in her audience. Just as in her beading, Scott connects with a social yet profoundly personal past and present in her acting-out. She draws from herself, and more often than not, she is the butt of her own humor. Drawing from the constructs of genetics, civil rights struggles and legislation, traditional narratives, and what she refers to as “primal and spiritual impulses,” Scott enacts in her performances contemporary paradoxes and parables that address the precariousness of life as well as its wonders.
At Artpace, Scott has been able to have the opportunity to experiment and finish a body of work. Along with her community-focused performances, Scott was able to work in a space that permitted an engagement with sculptural techniques and forms. Welding as well as glass-shaping with flame have yielded an artistic corpus dealing with design principles and the dynamics of light and space. Conceiving her sculptures as bearers of light in a dynamic space, Scott has had the freedom to realize operations that combine concept and chance. Beading and glass-shaping on diverse support surfaces enable the materials to flow and the object to occupy space in a polyvalent manner. The objects portraying diverse figures or evoking less representational imagery absorb, layer, bounce back, and generate plays of light. Some appear to be executed more spontaneously than others; upon close examination, the materials are worked in a sly and intriguing fashion. In this sense, her works—thematically as well as formally—have an allegorical dimension to them. Through its beauty, craft, and “objectness” in space, Scott’s new work creates a kaleidoscope of light, diverse veils, layers, and fields of signification grounded in the heterogeneity of cultural and spiritual locations.
Victor Zamudio-Taylor is a lecturer in the Art History Program, The University of Texas at Austin.