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Raising Her Voice

Joyce Scott's Race Gender Politics Sex Magic

Joyce J. Scott's "Look Mom--A Doctor"

By Kate Noonan | Posted 1/21/2009

Joyce J. Scott, Painful Death/Painless Life

Through Jan. 23 at Goya Contemporary.

Continuing to blur the lines between fine art and craft, Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott exhibits a selection of 20 skillfully executed and thematically challenging sculptures and prints in Painful Death/Painless Life at Goya Contemporary. Using her trademark materials of beads, thread, found objects, and glass, Scott examines the issues that have come, in large part, to define her art: Race, gender, sex, and politics intermingle with humor and theater to create a collection of pieces that are unmistakably her own. Her provocative art work and larger than life personality can be a little overwhelming to the uninitiated viewer, but don't let Scott intimidate you. She wants you to look.

"If Life Were a Tree," the exhibition's most visually intricate and dramatic piece, incorporates numerous small beaded figures and found objects, while displaying Scott's growing skill in handling blown glass. Crowned with a massive blown glass dome and upside-down beaded head, the piece is striking in its impressive construction and narrative complexity. The scene Scott sets is at once confrontational, hedonistic, and hilarious: nude female figures mount plastic toy alligators, beaded symbols of race and religion adorn the base, and the sagging branches of life's "tree" appear to form a melting skull.

Given the monumental events of recent American history and the current onslaught of Barack Obama art, it's not so surprising that Painful Death/Painless Life would also feature such an example. But unlike many of the political pieces currently flooding the art market, "Black Obama, White Obama" plays directly to the artist's long-standing and well-developed thematic interests. Race has inevitably characterized Obama's personal and professional identity--much as it has Scott's. (Both hail from multi-racial backgrounds, rich with history and cultural diversity, but have been socially classified as African-American.) This monotype, which is quieter and markedly more restrained than any of the exhibition's other works, feels intensely personal and introspective in comparison to the bawdy showmanship that typically describes Scott's work. In "Black Obama, White Obama" you are forced to acknowledge both sides of the man, whose pensive gaze exhibits profound depth, even when reduced to flatness through the printer's press.

Installed at face level on Goya's most expansive wall, "Tanzanian Flayed Albino Man's Penis," is utterly disturbing yet strangely beautiful. Formed out of shimmering flesh toned seed beads and thread, the hanging mass of flayed skin conveys an air of male powerlessness that is a stark contrast to the images of rape and sexuality that both precede and follow it. But "Tanzanian" is less concerned with sexuality than it is with the issues of violence, prejudice, and culture, specifically the ongoing plight of African albinos, who are regarded by many Tanzanians as cursed creatures and who have been brutally killed for their condition. Although one of the smallest pieces displayed, "Tanzanian" is also one of the most powerful and thought-provoking.

In "Day After Rape I: Darfur," as in "Tanzanian," you see the after-effects of violence, yet while the results in "Tanzanian" are completely physical, "Day After" explores the implications of violence on both the body and the spirit. Scott's small figure of a female nude lying in a pool of blood addresses another African crisis closely tied to race, religion, culture, and power. The bound Darfur woman stretches her hands and feet, making some attempt to escape, yet her recumbent body conveys a sense of hopeless resignation to her situation. The unrelenting sadness of this small piece, precisely constructed with "feminine" materials (beads and thread), haunts you long after you have seen it.

Meshing sex with violence, Scott's "Sexecution" series presents some of the most galvanizing images amongst her prolific body of prints. The set of screen prints--depicting both erotic photographs and illustrations superimposed against an execution chamber backdrops--tackles the concepts of fetish and eroticism as they correspond to race. "Sexecution I" depicts a masked, seminude Caucasian woman writhing atop the executioners table, while "Sexecution II" shows the faint outlines of an African sculpture. Here, as always, Scott brazenly challenges preconceived notions and invites discussion.

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