During a recent visit to New York City, I spent a delightful afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum. On the fourth floor, adjoining Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” is an exhibition of outsider fiber art called “Bound and Unbound.”
Judith Scott (1943‒2005) began creating art in 1987, beginning with painting and drawing – with lukewarm interest. Early on, she was guided by the center’s facilitators, but eventually was self-directed. Her drawing style presaged her fiber art wrappings, with “repetitive, swirling linear gestures with multiple color variations.” [Quotes in this post are from Museum signage; images are mine, without flash, per Museum policy. Click on the thumbnails below for a larger image.]
Once introduced to fiber art materials, however, she seemed to find a match for her creative needs. Her first wrapped piece was sort of a bridge between media, as she painted the surface – and that was also the last time she bothered with paint, apparently.
She made only one monochromatic work (shown on the right), from torn paper towels, when she ran out of her usual materials: primarily yarn and torn cloth. (Analogous to making patchwork quilts or rugs from used clothing? When you have the urge to create, you use the materials at hand)
The wrapped bundles became more “elaborate and refined” over time. The object(s) being wrapped were not recorded at the time, and for most, it is now impossible to now know what is inside them.
Scott created her artworks on top of a table, with the objects in a manageable horizontal orientation. Physically she would need help in manipulating the large objects, but the artistic choices were all hers.
The Museum displayed a few pieces on the wall (below, and a detail). “Scott constructed a number of pieces with…relief-like surfaces that, when hung on a wall, feel fluid or imply movement, while when presented horizontally appear more fixed and grounded.” (An analogy with wall vs bed quilts?)
The artworks could take weeks or months to complete. She knew when she was finished with a piece, never revisiting it but just going on to the next project.
“By 1989, Scott was experimenting with more elaborately composed works featuring bent and trussed forms, creating a structural tension that is seemingly held in place by her wrapping and weaving technique. Formally, they show an awareness of negative space and sometimes make reference to biological forms amid their elaborate openwork construction.”
Scott produced her art in Oakland, California, at the Creative Growth Art Center, an organization which still serves mentally, developmentally, and physically disabled adult artists. Individuals are encouraged to create art as an end in itself, rather than as therapy. They worked side-by-side in many media: painting, ceramics, tapestry, etc. Scott was Deaf, essentially mute, and had Down Syndrome. “Given…her inability to communicate in a conventional manner, Judith Scott was not in a position to explain her work. What she was actually making, and why she made it, therefore remains elusive.”
Studying her work, I could see many examples of the Principles of Design. Did Scott re-discover these on her own? In which case, are they innate to human nature? The lines of wrapping provide rhythm, line, pattern, area. Her choices of materials display harmony, and hierarchies of scale. An example is the yarns and tubing/plastic hose in this piece (28 x 15 x 27 in).
Or consider all the circles in the wrapped chair – particularly, a bike wheel and a hat. Yet there are surprises that are delightful to find. For example, one foot of the chair is different from the other three.
Colors in some pieces are sharply contrasting, while in others they are similarly hued. The “book” has reddish colors, with the spark of blue in the center.
Nothing in this exhibition looks like a random hodgepodge of “stuff”. The analysis of any one piece could almost be a Ragged Cloth post in itself.
Scott covered mundane objects, making them unknowable. The object wrapped is immaterial (interesting word!) to its surface – it has become non-objective art. None of the artworks have titles. Judith Scott left no comment, statement, explanation; leaving us open to interpret as we will. I find this is Art at its most powerful.
Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, 4th Floor
Brooklyn Museum (New York)
through March 29, 2015