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Circular Logic 

It happened only gradually, but as John Scott approaches 65 he must be regarded as an elder statesman of the New Orleans art scene as well as one of America's leading African-American artist/educators. As such, he's a quintessential homeboy, a product of our local neighborhoods, who reached for the stars while keeping his feet planted firmly in the earthy root structures of our unique Creole culture. Anyone who doubts that need only look at the handsome catalog for this sprawling Circle Dance retrospective and note the recipe selection from the Dookie Chase restaurant. Now there's an art show catalog you can use!

Even so, there is so much going on in this expo that it can be hard to digest all at once. Scott's curiosity is evident in his evolution from his earliest, expressionist-influenced work to his later African and School of Paris modalities, then back again to expressionism in the form of huge woodcuts. It's around the world in four decades, yet despite all that, it all remains grounded in his unique vision and insistent social critique. Appropriately enough, the first thing you see is a selection of sketches, the basic working tool of visual artists and art students. As fluid and seemingly spontaneous as visual jazz riffs, they are undated but appear to span much of the show. (One of them, of an unidentified saxophonist with a shaved head, strikingly resembles mayor Ray Nagin, affirming my own contention that Nagin looks like a sax player.) In some largish prints nearby, this fluidity of line leavens the taut graphic tension that epitomizes Scott's early expressionism. Aged Vanity is a view of a nude matron whose body suggests a geologic outcropping of sharply rounded hills forged by the pressure of long extinct volcanoes. There is also something saurian about her expression, and hints of Albert Ayler's jagged abstract jazz about her aura.

Even more surreal expressions appear in a sequence of small bronze sculptures, Third World Banquet Table, a series of place settings on a rosewood base. Here dysfunctional, twisted cutlery and plates containing spikes, barbs and ballistic things provides a commentary on how much of the world lives, while creating a powerfully dreamlike statement. But all is not ashes and angst in Scott's world. His early 1980s Diddly Bow Series, inspired by the simple stringed instruments made by rural Southern blacks, seems to lead seamlessly, if unexpectedly, into his cantilevered, George Rickey-influenced kinetic sculptures later in the decade, circles and rods that gracefully dance to the rhythms of ambient air currents. Painted in rich polychromatic patterns somewhere between Matisse and Peter Max, they carry Scott's vision aloft into a prismatic ozone belt, a realm of delicately configured rainbow light. His 1985 Shango's Dream is a framework of painted aluminum rods at odd angles, circles containing floating batons amid aluminum silhouettes of lightning bolts and checkered flags. Shango is the Nigerian loa of fire and lightning, patron of storms and flags, and here his spirit is invoked playfully.

Related in tone and form is Sacred Music for Sonny Stitt, himself a Shango of the saxophone, as the fluid power and grace of Stitt's playing is suggested in a colorful blend of tribal patterning and aerodynamics. If this seems like high flying stuff, a series of large scale woodcuts from 2002-2003 takes us back down to earth, to the 'hood and the visual cacophonies of tumbledown Victorian gingerbread shotguns and tenements haunted by the ghosts of Buddy Bolden and the anonymous piano professors who performed in the Tango Belt parlors of long ago. Here Scott gives us not so much a record as an impression, a psychic afterimage of their gritty and ruinous glory. Many of his ongoing themes are in some ways epitomized in Spirit House, a public monument created in partnership with fellow sculptor Martin Payton, and seen here in model form. Located in a prominent yet obscure Gentilly intersection, Spirit House evokes a shotgun dwelling made of sheet metal filigree. A scrimshaw of myth and memory, it is both large and intimate, a monument to the soul of a city and its neighborhoods, a vessel of hopes, dreams and things unseen, a rumination on what is, was and may be in the times to come.

click to enlarge John Scott's Sacred Music for Sonny Stitt Circle
  • John Scott's Sacred Music for Sonny Stitt Circle
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Speaking of Through July 10, Circle Dance: The Art Of John T. Scott

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