At the Brooklyn Museum, Judith Scott’s Hypnotic Sculptures Transcend “Outsider Art”
During a recent conversation about Judith Scott’s excellent retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, a scene from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince came to mind. In it, the narrator remembers a favorite drawing he made as a child: a cross section of a snake whose body bulges comically with an intact, upright elephant. The young artist shows the fantastical image to surrounding adults only to discover, with dismay, that they mistake it for a hat. A fable about the importance of imagination ensues. In “Bound and Unbound,” Scott’s woven, bulging sculptures recall Saint-Exupéry’s snake-elephant hybrid. As it is for the adults in his story, what lies beneath Scott’s meticulously swaddled forms is left to our imagination. It is this quality of concealment that imbues the sculptures with their power; the formal qualities of the surfaces themselves—and the ambiguous suggestion of objects below—are what elicit impact.
The more than 50 sculptures and handful of drawings currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum variously resemble ethereal nests, ample fertility icons, flamboyant tools, and unbreakable, ominous cocoons for creatures much larger than caterpillars. Together, set on low plinths not unlike Scott’s work table, they could be a band of survivalist totems, indicating reverence for, or protection from, the world’s complexities. (But this is just satisfying conjecture, for Scott left no notes describing her inspirations.) They are certainly, however, a group of daring experiments in color and form, communicated through knotty, hypnotic amalgamations of objects wrapped in networks of twine.
In recent years, Scott’s work has been championed by influential curators and simultaneously reframed as a result of a necessary shift in our understanding and use of the term “outsider art,” often used to describe this artist’s practice. Traditionally, the designation signifies art made by those identified as self-taught, folk, vernacular, disabled, and others working on the so-called fringe. While the term was instrumental in the 1970s and ’80s in bringing the work of these artists to light, today it can feel too broad, segregating, and branded. There is currently an effort among curators (like the two who organized this show, Catherine Morris and Matthew Higgs, and others such as Lynne Cooke, Massimiliano Gioni, and Lawrence Rinder, all of whom participated in an associated panel at the Brooklyn Museum) to set aside this term in favor of an approach that focuses less on conventional methods of categorization.
Scott, who died in 2005, was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1943 with Down syndrome. She was later discovered to be deaf, which explained her inability to speak. Institutionalized for much of her life, she never received a formal art education. When Scott’s twin sister became her legal guardian at the age of 43, however, Scott moved to the San Francisco area and was introduced to the creative process through Creative Growth Art Center, a collaborative workspace for mentally, physically, and developmentally disabled adults. It was here that she made the works on view at the Brooklyn Museum.
Put simply, Scott’s sculptures are objects to pore over. This is not because of her background or disability—her works don’t overtly draw on her biography, as Higgs and Morris point out in the exhibition’s concise, clear wall text. Instead, audience engagement happens in the face of Scott’s idiosyncratic, obsessive approach to texture, color, and contour. After making drawings of loose, looping circles during her first year at Creative Growth, Scott created her first sculptural object during a workshop with the fiber artist Sylvia Seventy. In it, strips of fabric bind a bundle of thin sticks. The fragile package is secured and embellished with twine, nails, and pins that dot the rough surface, suggesting an organic topography. Scott had found her medium.
Carefully selecting her materials, she would go on to create her intricate three-dimensional abstractions by wrapping and weaving strips of fabric and other long, pliable materials around found objects. Beads and other small, shiny objects occasionally ornamented the surfaces that concealed the armatures beneath. After weeks and sometimes months of work at a long communal table, she would push a completed sculpture away, often signaling a thumbs up.
Over the years, Scott’s sculptures became larger, less delicate, and more complex. In a work from 1993, sea green string sheaths a long, slender form, then affixes it to an open circle covered in blue and bits of dark green and red yarn. The impression is of a constructivist dreamcatcher in the throes of creation, or maybe decay. Its state, in any case, feels transitional. Untitled (1994) stands out as the most physically solid work in the show. The only form that is both monochromatic and mono-medium (it was made from paper towels found in Creative Growth’s bathroom), it feels like the tabula rasa of Scott’s practice and the foundation for the last 10 years of her career, when works became even bigger and often more corporeal.
In a well-known photo of Scott by Leon A. Borensztein, she hugs one of her sculptures. The two forms—Scott’s body and that of her creation—seem to melt into each other. These are distinct shapes you might, in this instance, mistake as one. While knowledge of Scott’s biography isn’t a necessary element in appreciating her endlessly enthralling work, her close relationship to her sculptures feels important. In Higgs’s catalogue essay, he mentions that Scott sometimes stowed small objects that she owned, like jewelry, in the core of her works. We wonder what this meant—we’ll never know—but the gesture of intimacy is powerful nonetheless, adding another layer to Scott’s deeply complex sculptures.