Artist Larry Scott unlimbers raw emotional power in The Evolution of Depression
“That’s my portrait of Emmett Till,” he murmurs, as you stop beside a painting of a young man smeared into unrecognizable patches of black, red, and yellow, surrounded by newspaper clippings about the civil-rights martyr’s recent exhumation. “I was reading the stories in USA Today about Till. When I was a kid I went with my dad to the barbershop, and he handed me a magazine that had pictures of Till in it, what they did to him. I never forgot that, and I think that’s why he showed it to me, so I wouldn’t forget about it.”
Self-taught, Scott’s masterful paintings and drawings evoke wildly different associations as you move from piece to piece—Matisse, Picasso, Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, Ralph Steadman. And his life has been just as chameleonic as his style. Newark, N.J.-raised and Baltimore-based, the former world karate champion, saxophone player, and business management major forsook his day job to paint full-time during the early ’90s. He’s been a player on the American contemporary urban art scene ever since, quenching his thirst for constant innovation with acrylics, oils, collage, inks, watercolors, sand, pebbles, found objects, brushes, twigs used as brushes, and anything else he can get his hands on.
The prolific results of Scott’s most recent experiments are given plenty of breathing room in Sub-Basement Studios’ vast underground space. The title series, “Evolution of Depression,” is a particular highlight. Consisting of 200 India ink drawings completed over the course of two weeks, the series illustrates a dark time in Scott’s life with harrowing subconscious imagery, rendered expertly with jagged, erratic lines. Babies being born share face time with knives piercing heads, phallic symbols, gaping red vaginas, chickens transforming into human hands, pig-headed figures, and stiletto heels. Some were painted upside-down, or sideways, and dribbled with diluted paint. Viewers may find “Evolution of Depression’s” raw mix of eroticism and brutality confrontational, but that’s to be expected—for Scott, it was a form of therapy.
“I was really blue, depressed,” he explains, eyes scanning the wall of tacked-up drawings. “It was like I had something inside me that needed to get out. You know how you sit and have those mental flashes, pictures? Good, bad, you want to bring out whatever’s inside, not hide it. I try as often as possible not to hide those moments, because then I’d feel like a fraud.”
Just when you’re impressed by the level of draftsmanship and emotional savvy that Scott displays in “Evolution of Depression,” the exhibit shifts focus to his paintings, which run the gamut from commissioned portrait work to eerie abstract white landscapes. “The Stranger” is an elegant, haunting visualization of Camus’ famous hero Meursault, collaged with yellowed, paint-splattered pages from an actual copy of the book, Scott’s all-time favorite.
His 2001 self-portrait “Traveled” shows a profile of the artist with palette and brush in hand, painting the world he sees around him while a folk-art-inspired African-American woman floats on the canvas behind his head. A loosely related group of collage paintings relating to the black experience riff on the old Southern belief that if you wallpapered your home with newsprint evil spirits had to read every word on the wall before they could enter and do the devil’s work. All of Scott’s work is challenging; he tends to create images that demand contemplation while retaining aesthetic beauty and accessibility.
“I used to want my art to be immediate, but now I start to get nervous when people start feeling my work really fast,” Scott says.
He is definitely feeling two of his most recent projects. The first is a series of spare, minimalist works that use muslin squares, pumice gel, egg crate-like bed pads, and gobs of white paint to simultaneously obscure and elucidate nontraditional landscapes; the second is a group of bright, primary-colored works that capture the sassy energy of the 12-going-on-30 girls who used to jump rope in front of his Newark boyhood home, rendered with swift, fashion designer-esque lines and only the barest suggestion of facial features (Scott feels that eyes inevitably detract the viewer from the rest of the work). He has a tendency to paint the same basic images or ideas over and over (“I start out just doing one and end up doing 25 or so,” he says), making slight variations to the motif with each new piece, but his work is never redundant. “Girl in Red Dress With Flowers” echoes and reinforces “Girl in Red Dress With Jump Rope,” but the two faceless figures genuinely feel like different girls. Unsurprisingly, Scott firmly believes that evolution is a key part of the artistic process.
“A lot of times, I have friends who have ‘painter’s block,’” Scott says. “And they don’t have ‘painter’s block,’ they’re just reluctant to try something new, to move on to the next thing. So they sit around waiting for the old thing to work again, or trying to make it work. I can’t do that. For me, not to work is to be like I’m dead.”
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