The AGH is pleased to partner with the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College in Iowa. Daniel Strong, Associate Director and Curator of Exhibitions there, originated the John Scott exhibition in 2012; surprisingly, it was John’s first exhibition in the United States. Daniel shared his insight on the project with us during the public opening reception on February 20. It was so nicely written we want to share it here with you.
Daniel Strong addresses the audience
John Scott celebrating with friends
Celebrating together, left to right: Daniel Strong, Shelley Falconer, AGH President and CEO, Nicholas Metiver, John Scott, Greg Manuel of Nicholas Metivier Gallery
John Scott addresses the crowd, with Daniel Strong
Visitors at the opening reception for Fearful Symmetry: The Art of John Scott; Real Life Size, an AGH collection work, on view in the background
Visitors at the opening reception for Fearful Symmetry: The Art of John Scott
First, I have to say this is a humbling experience for me, a curator who works for a private college of about 1,500 students in a small Iowa town of only 9,000 people. You could comfortably fit every human being I know into this room and not run out of chairs.
If you drew concentric circles around Grinnell, Iowa, on a map you would find two cities that are one hour away; another ring of larger cities like Omaha and Kansas City that are three hours away, and then cities like St. Louis and Chicago that are five hours away. Within those rings we like to call ourselves centrally isolated. So how does John Scott come to have his debut United States retrospective in a place like Grinnell?
Well, living and working in the middle of a cornfield has its perks, one of which is that I can pretty much show what I want. I also have the luxury in meeting those desires by being able to go where I want. (Life in a small town is perfectly livable, even referable, so long as you can get out.) In 2008 I was at an art fair called Art Chicago with a friend who caught up to me in the maze of exhibitors and said, “I have to show you something. I don’t know anything about it, but I think I have to buy it.” She did buy that piece, the first she or I had ever seen by this artist we’d never heard of named John Scott. The piece is not in this exhibition, but it graces the cover of the exhibition catalogue.
Fast-forward three years to 2011 in New York City. I’m again wandering through an art fair when something in the corner of my eye makes me turn around. I move closer and I can recall thinking, “I know what that is.” And this time it is I who buys the piece off the wall for the Grinnell College Art Collection, a collection of about 7,000 objects, mostly works on paper, the focus of which is art of social and political activism. We often say that the spiritual core of our collection is Goya’s “Disasters of War,” of which we have two complete sets. In light of the presence of works by Goya and other artists like Hogarth, Callot, Picasso, and the German Expressionists in Grinnell College’s collection, I hope you can appreciate how and why the art of John Scott might catch my eye. The piece I acquired for Grinnell — also not here in Hamilton, I’m afraid — is on page seven of the exhibition catalogue.
Our “Dark Commander” arrived in Grinnell as most oversized works of art on paper do, rolled in a tube. I unrolled it on a table and stood over it, wondering, “what should I do with this?”
The answer, of course, was clear.
Because of where I live and work and its attendant freedoms, my exhibition ideas typically arise from my personal interests, and few in the past 17 years more than this one. While I had never heard of John Scott before 2008, his work struck a personal chord, one that may have nothing to do with his actual intent or his importance in the grand arc of Canadian artistic achievement, in the study of which I am sadly still a novice. My first reaction to John’s Dark Commanders was squarely in the context of the second Iraq war, which had been an ongoing unmitigated disaster by 2008, compounded at home and abroad by the just-then-dawning reality of a crippling economic collapse. I had clear associations in my head (without naming names) with sinister, blind, political and corporate Napoleons blundering their way across the surface of the earth.
As I learned more about John, with the invaluable assistance of the people at Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto — particularly Nicholas himself, Sarah Massie, and the dauntless Greg Manuel, all of whom are here with John today — I discovered that there was more to his work than my limited and time-bound associations; more to him, and more to my connection to his work. His life traces a line along the border between our two countries, through cities of industrial and commercial might and blight like Windsor and Detroit, where John spent his youth; Hamilton and Buffalo, once estimable industrial powerhouses; and Niagara Falls and Rochester, NY, where I was born and raised. John’s worldview matured in the 60s and 70s against manufacturing decline and the backdrop of an unpopular war raging in Southeast Asia. I was born in modest circumstances in 1966. Images on television of the war in Vietnam comprise some of my earliest memories. My oldest brother died there in 1971, when I was five.
Now 45 years later the price still costs. Many if not most lessons go unlearned, and the 21st century has begun as none of us might have imagined. None, perhaps, except for the man we are here to honor today.
I purposely began my foreword to the exhibition catalogue with Spaceman, from 1974, to leaven the presence of the Dark Commanders that surround him in the front of the book, and to mitigate the darkness that some are too quick to use as a descriptor of John’s work as a whole.
Sure, he seems to like the word, “APOCALYPSE.”
The sublimity of his mean machinery, like the matte black muscle car in this exhibition that truly makes it a blockbuster, leaves little space for doubt. Perused quickly, his work doesn’t exude “sunny ways.” Yet there are, if you look closely, childlike wonder, wry humor, and an unmistakable rejoinder that there is a clear way back from the brink. He reminds us that an apocalypse, at least in the Western tradition, is not something that simply happens, like a natural disaster, or is fated or even doomed to happen. Apocalypse has to be caused; it has to be led. Apocalypse has to be driven.
Blind horsemen. Blind commanders. Blind corporate magnates. Blind presidents.
John’s work is cryptic; “apocalyptic.” It transcends particular circumstances and is open-ended like the future itself. As I like to say, any of John Scott’s works over the past four decades could have been made next year. To this I say: let’s hope.
In everything he has done and is still doing, I don’t think John Scott is telling us what to see. I think he’ll be happy if we just open our eyes.
Associate Director and Curator of Exhibitions
Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College
Grinnell, Iowa, USA