Once upon a time John Scott was a young socialist/communist-leaning kid mopping the floors of an oil refinery. With the intention of becoming a socially conscious art writer, he dashed off some napkin drawings and soon found himself enrolled at the formerly known Ontario College of Art (now called OCAD University). Since then he’s been making expressionistic, mostly 2-D works with a lot of black which not too subtly state “WAR BAD.” So what else is new?
Well, for one, John Scott’s first New York show, “Mortality Games,” is now on view at the Flowers Gallery with work ranging from 2008 to the present. He’s a Marxist reader for whom words and direct imagery combine to echo that of protest signage, and it’s this blunt and immediate form that seems most often to comprise his activity and align his sentiments. With a penchant for sporting black tees emblazoned with the word “TRUTH” in all caps, as well as for a certain brand of self-mythologizing, he seems none too fond of America’s ability to make war.
Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, a stone’s throw from Detroit, Scott watched the Motor City’s destructive riots interspersed with the destructive Vietnam War. These remote observations combined with a social activism that compelled the young artist to draw, paint and eventually sculpt out expressive work that, across these various disciplines, lend itself to a cyclic, internalized association of imagery. The bullet in Bullet/Sniper reflects the planes of Scott’s oeuvre (often the frightful SR-71 Blackbird) which reflect the biblically scrolled Trans-Am car hood which, in context, looks not unlike an unfolded paper airplane. Everything bounces off the previous as Scott culls from personal experience as well as his own repertoire of images along a 40 year-long career.
A major element that supports the iconographic beat of the work is a rather childlike relationship to display. The figures are right there; frontal, mostly peering at the viewer and often so large within the picture-plane they appear to bow and dwarf the shallow horizon line beneath them. It presents an interesting meditation on power and the ability to shape opinion.
At times, Scott’s aesthetic descends into facsimile. The injustices committed against Abu Ghraib detainees in 2003, shockingly and ironically captured in photos by the prisoners’ own tormentors, is recreated in a 2008 work on paper. The work bears Scott’s customarily rugged, black mark-making along with a title and inscription that some might take for prophecy: The Unmaking of the World. But the assertion of the text isn’t propelled especially far by the recreation of the damning photo and has a somewhat opportunistic quality for one who, throughout many years, has distantly and wearisomely engaged American society. Just in case we miss the point, behind the hoodwinked figure, as if scrolled on the wall by the captive man himself, is written, “God will avenge me.”
Like any good Marxist reader, Scott believes in a comeuppance; a time when the baddies get sent up the river too. Scott’s ongoing series, the Dark Commanders, in his words represent, “The spirit of harsh justice,” which would seem to imply that they’re a kind of fantasy, or icon sent to dispatch the bodies of one’s persecution. The series is of a spectral figure many associate with Napoleon or Fascist Spain due to the tricorne hat, and long coat. There’s a skeletal, even alien look about some of the faces, but in fact, Scott says he got the idea from the film about Mozart, Amadeus, and the character of the The Commandatore who accompanies people to Hell. The Dark Commanders, occasionally red eyed and looming, are ever so singular – powerless save for the power they are bestowed. At “Morality Games” a very large addition to this series, Alpha Male, is there to greet visitors as they enter. The figure neither beacons our allegiance nor repels us, but he does seem to make a statement: “To follow me is to find war, and (as you might have guessed) it’s going to suck.” But the Dark Commanders are also Scott himself: sometimes a little sad looking, alone in a struggle where only the mind can successfully take arms against the materiel.
At this place in time a New York show for John Scott seems inevitable. As America re-collects after more than a decade of conflict where answers to tough questions and divisive notions of morality were meted out in uncertain tones, perhaps it’s indeed time for a voice as stark, simple, and literally black-and-white as Scott’s to be heard so as to remind us of our nobler ambitions while presenting a guard (a Dark Commander if you like) against future lapses in intelligence.
John Scott: Mortality Games
May 16 – June 13, 2015
Writing by Zach Eichelberger
Photographs provided by the gallery and the artist