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Circle Dance: John T. Scott Retrospective

May 7 - July 10, 2005


(above: John Scott, Beginning, 1992, gouache on paper. Photo by Judy Cooper)


John T. Scott, one of the country's most highly acclaimed contemporary artists, will be recognized in a comprehensive exhibition exploring the genius of his work. Scott has been celebrated for creating a unique visual language through innovative works of art which have been shaped, in great part, by African, Caribbean, and distinctly local traditions. Best known for creating vibrantly colored and multi-layered prints and kinetic sculptures, Scott's work has been referred to as "optical jazz," evoking the spirit of music and dance in his art. Circle Dance: John T. Scott Retrospective traces the technical, aesthetic and political evolution of this native New Orleans artist's work over the past forty years. Organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art, the exhibition will be on view May 7 through July 10, 2005. (right: John Scott. Photo by Judy Cooper)

The exhibition title itself, Circle Dance, provides an apt historical allusion and intellectual framework that allows for a regional, spiritual and even musical appreciation of Scott's work. The term Circle Dance refers to the "ring dances" performed by peoples of African, Caribbean, and southern United States ancestry during the period of slavery when dance was both a form of entertainment and a sacred ritual. "Circle Dance alludes to Scott's performative engagement with three-dimensional object making and the self-choreographed movements required by the viewer to fully experience his art," says guest curator Dr. Richard J. Powell, Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University.

A powerful underlying motive for Scott is to "move someone's spirit" when experiencing his art. Circle Dance celebrates the diversity of influences in Scott's creative journey. One such influence is the relationship between creating music and creating his works of art. When discussing the influence of jazz musicians in his work, Scott says, "the most powerful things in their music is the silence between the notes. In my kinetic work there's an awful lot of space, and I play on the shifting movement of that space." When creating his art, Scott uses a unique thinking style which he describes as "jazz thinking," or, "spherical thinking" -- an improvisational technique that allows him to see relationships between all things, even when the relationship may not be blatantly clear to others.

Circle Dance is the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist's work ever presented. Using a multitude of media, Scott's art is characterized by diversity and inspired by history. All of Scott's art contains movement, either kinetic or implied. The exhibition is divided into four individual sections following the evolution of Scott's art through spiritual, musical, and political metaphors.

Part One of the exhibition, entitled Evidence, is both the name of an early bebop masterpiece by pianist/composer Thelonius Monk and a fitting designation for Scott's early work (1963-1981). Scott "wanted to do work that was hard, that people were going to think about" and did so by incorporating representational imagery and human figures from a decidedly socio-political perspective. An early assemblage, Resurrection of the Risen Christ (1969-1970), is an example of such a work. Using disparate steel components combined and welded to evoke Christ's body and the spears, thorns, and bludgeons that were used during the crucifixion, Scott visually fuses traditional Christianity-based themes with modern materials and technology.

Quadrille, Part Two of the exhibition, emphasizes the movement and playfulness that is characteristic of Scott's early kinetic work (1982-1991). The title, Quadrille, is inspired by French-influenced dances of the same name that marked a distinct, Creole culture in historical New Orleans. An extraordinary example of Scott's work from this time is his Diddlie Bow Series (1983-1984). This series of brass and wooden sculptures was inspired by a mythical African ritual where after using a hunting bow to kill an animal, the hunter would turn the bow upside down to create a one-stringed instrument to offer a donation of music to restore the harmony of nature and man. Brought into the region by enslaved people through the Mississippi Delta, the Diddlie Bow was part of the development of blues music, combining African rhythms and western harmonics. The fusion of African mythology and western technology in this series became what Scott refers to as "a visual blues" -- instilling a decidedly African American sense of movement in his modern sculpture. (left: John Scott, Old Louis, 2002-03, wood block, 80 x 48 inches. Photo by Judy Cooper)

Part Three, John de Conqueror, shows the transition in Scott's career to his most prolific period (1992-2004). In African folk magic, or Hoodoo, the John de Conqueror root is known for bringing luck and prosperity to many. Prospering from the grant money received from the MacArthur Foundation in 1992, Scott was able to purchase adequate studio space for developing more ambitious creations and was able to further his interest in creating larger, site specific works of art. One such work, Spiritgates, was commissioned for the New Orleans Museum of Art (1994). A sculptural masterpiece with intricate shapes and spaces dancing atop an elegant frame, the artwork serves another role as an entryway into the Museum. Spiritgates uses Scott's unique visual language to change a stationary installation into a kinetic sculpture where "the people provide the movement as they walk by."

Operating as part gallery space and part resource room, Part Four, Sites/Sources, will display Scott's sketch books, video documentation of site-specific art installations, and a video conversation, Improvisations, between jazz musician Ellis Marsalis and John T. Scott. Scott's copious amount of sketchbooks are like journals documenting the sources of inspiration for his work along with the everyday tasks and responsibilities of an artist, a husband, a father and a teacher. (right: John Scott, Inez, 1992, gouache on paper. Photo by Judy Cooper)

This exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated color catalog featuring a preface by Ambassador Corinne C. [Lindy] Boggs, foreword and acknowledgments by NOMA Director E. John Bullard, an essay by guest curator Dr. Richard J. Powell, Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, New Orleans recipes by chef Leah Chase, Reminiscence by Ellis Marsalis, founder of the UNO Jazz Studies Program, an artist biography and checklist of works of art in the exhibition.



John T. Scott is the 1992 recipient of the prestigious "Genius Grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, awarded for demonstrating extraordinary originality and exceptional creativity in the field of art. Scott is one of a selected few artists from across the United States chosen to receive this honor. This grant and unrestricted stipend recognized John Scott as one of America's most innovative artists.

Growing up, Scott and his five siblings were introduced to a solid work ethic by their parents, Thomas and Mary Mable Holmes Scott, in New Orleans's Lower 9th Ward. His father's dedication to providing for his family as a cook and server in several of New Orleans's most prominent restaurants, along with his mother's wisdom and inspiration, encouraged Scott to pursue his dream of becoming an artist with determination and optimism. Scott learned basic carpentry skills from his father and embroidery from his mother, instilling in him a partly practical, partly creative desire towards making things that would influence his life as a resourceful and inventive artist. The insight and generosity instilled in him during childhood are part of what has made him an exceptional artist and an inspirational teacher.

He attended Xavier University of Louisiana in the 1950s and studied under painter Numa Rousseve, sculptor Frank Hayden, and Sister Mary Lurana Neely. During the 1950s, Scott and his fellow African American students were pushed to excel beyond greater society's often narrow-minded expectations and participate in region-wide art projects challenging their knowledge and initiative. Scott received a Master of Fine Arts from Michigan State University where he gained two important assistantships with his major professors, sculptor Robert Weil and painter/printmaker Charles Pollock (brother of Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock).

Scott then returned to New Orleans as a Professor of Fine Arts at his alma mater, Xavier, creating a legion of inspired students during the past 40 years. In the fall of 1965 he married longtime girlfriend Anna Rita Smith and continued teaching and creating art. A new marriage, a demanding teaching post, and the arrival of children did not slow Scott's artistic productivity. These challenges only motivated Scott to work at a pace and level of success unparalleled among his peers.

Scott's art often contains movement, either kinetic or implied. Experimenting in a multitude of media infused with African, Caribbean, and local flavors, Scott's art is characterized by diversity. Scott uses a unique thinking style, which he describes as "Spherical Thinking"--an improvisational technique which allows him to see relationships between all things, even when the relationship may not be blatantly clear. "The name Circle Dance alludes to Scott's performative engagement with three-dimensional object making and the self-choreographed movements required by the viewer to fully experience his art," says guest curator Dr. Richard J. Powell, Chairman of Art and Art History at Duke University. Scott's main objective in all of his work is to "move someone's spirit," and anyone who has seen his art would say that he has accomplished that task with aplomb.


(above: John Scott, Urban Ibeji: Sun House, 1995, painted aluminum, 25-1/2 x 16 x 4- 1/2 inches. Photo by Judy Cooper)


rev. 5/17/05

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