Writing Archive

Beauty and Doubt

catalogue essay for Bill Scott: Leaf and Line at Hollis Taggart Galleries, March 2018

Abstraction, to a great degree, is a protracted effort to cultivate surprise. The marks that novice abstract painters put down mostly do not: insipid insipid zigzags, meandering doodles, edge-to-edge lines that blandly divide the rectangle.

To appreciate Bill Scott’s mastery, one must understand that he has to contend with the opposite problem. The bad lines never entirely go away. One just becomes inured to the process of altering them or incorporating them or obliterating them. But by the time a painter has adjusted several thousand marks, modulated the ten-thousandth area of color against its neighbor, and done decades’ worth of serious, genuine work in the studio, ease can arise.

This is a relief, for a while. But with ease comes a loss of the tension that abstraction needs in order to function as art, and not merely a decorated surface. This is a particular danger for artists working in a lyrical mode, such as Scott. Losing tension leads to painting that looks saccharine. Or worse, inert.

Some painters embrace ease and enjoy it for the rest of their working lives, to the detriment of their art. A painter of Scott’s caliber seeks out the technique that is causing the ease, eliminates it, and rebuilds around the vacuum. Inevitably that starts producing facile results. The artist repeats the process indefinitely. Sometimes discarded maneuvers are launched again in a spirit of rebellion against asceticism. Remaining in the mind of surprise requires doubt, and doubt about doubt.

There are overarching themes to Scott’s work. His palette tends toward high saturation. He uses hot colors with great aplomb. To combat the tendency of such colors to break apart a composition, he draws lines of dark paint with a one-inch brush. To keep the lines surprising, he refers to the curves of a philodendron growing in the studio. (This last item may seem counterintuitive: drawing an extant object results in surprising lines? Yes. Nature is more inventive than the brains we use to think about it. Our recollections are too orderly, too repetitive, too general.)

But given a roomful of his paintings, one can see where Scott has thrown away each of these methods. The arcs of the philodendron give way to invented ones. Some shapes get demarcations while others collide. Neutrals creep in over the bright colors like storm clouds. Abstraction itself may disappear, as the still lifes and interior scenes that gave rise to this work reassert themselves. Questions surround the whole project. They are queries that resist thought and defy words, so one must paint the answers, or try.

As luscious as they are, Scott’s paintings are suffused with anxiety. That This lends their obvious joy an urgency that bliss alone cannot accomplish. And yet they offer bliss, because Scott has refused ease and brought it into being.

Word count: 466

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