Bill Scott

Train Station Nimes

Bill Scott, Train Station Nimes (2009), 24″ x 30″, oil on canvas; courtesy Albemarle Gallery

When was it that pleasure became a suspect response to art–or, rather, that art trading in pleasure came to be considered suspect?

Art serves many purposes and elicits a bewildering array of reactions.  Only a person who holds it in contempt would wish otherwise.  But sometime after Marcel Duchamp reinvented the wheel and before Damien Hirst discovered formaldehyde, the notion that art was, above all, an affront of one sort or another became the received wisdom.  Even cursory observers of contemporary culture recognize the ubiquity of the medicinal school of art; you know–if it tastes (or looks) bad it must be good for you.  Outrage and discomfort can provide legitimate aesthetic experiences, but who’s to say they’re desirable or, for that matter, indicative of art’s true purpose?

Pleasure is the intent of Bill Scott’s paintings and, more important, the outcome.  The pleasure they offer is unalloyed and unapologetic; most of all, it is real.  Scott’s verdant tableaux are refreshing and clean, light-hearted yet down to earth, and possessed of an irrepressible esprit–a kind of droll buoyancy.  Their originality lies not in how pictorial conventions are overthrown, but the way in which pictorial conventions are revitalized through temperamental idiosyncracies and the particularities of touch.

These are no small things.  An artist achieves a distinctive vision only through a long-standing dedication to craft with all the attendant frustrations, blind alleys, twists and revelations.  Then there’s love:  Works of art would be mean and petty things if they didn’t radiate with the joy (or, if you prefer, the meaning) taken in their making.  That an artist should be simpatico with his materials is a cliché, of course, but like every cliché, it’s pretty much true.  When looking at a Scott painting, there’s never a question that it could be otherwise.  As corny as it may sound, each of his canvases serves as a valentine for oil paint.

Scott’s compositions are populated by rectangles, squares and circles, trailing lines and, less so, unbounded flurries of color.  Don’t let the prevalence of geometry fool you: Hard edges aren’t necessarily Scott’s thing.  He’s the least fussy of paint-handlers.  Individual forms are casually put into shape–predominantly with a palette knife, a brush being reserved for selective moments of linear emphasis. Though geometry provides structural and iconographic consistency, the cumulative effect of each composition is organic, fluid and spacious.

The work reminds us, in fact, of the limits of terminology.  Sure, Scott is an abstract painter, but only nominally and, in the end, not at all.  Abstract means are put to naturalistic ends or, perhaps it is better said, to naturalistic sensations.  You don’t need to know the titles–From My Window, Spring, say, or Yvon’s Garden In Cere-La-Ronde–to intuit Scott’s profound debt to nature’s beneficence.   It’s there to see in a painterly approach channeling the inexorable logic of botanical growth.  A palette suffused with light and animated by sparkling shifts of color acts as additional confirmation.  Rodin declared that nature was boundless in its inspiration.  Scott would undoubtedly agree.

Scott’s process is intuitive, improvisatory and welcoming of unexpected tangents.  His expansive accumulations of painterly incident can bring to mind Jackson Pollock’s all-over pictorial strategies; Hans Hofmann is in the mix as well, as much (and maybe more) in terms of ebullience than for chromatic push-and-pull.  But Scott’s roots go deeper than mid-century American abstraction.  First off, he’s something of an Intimist; even when the pictures are sizable, they’re attuned to intricacies of form and embody states of feeling that favor contemplation over melodrama.  Paul Klee’s jewel-box dioramas, paintings that similarly tapped into nature’s authority, offer another telling comparison.

Then there’s Scott’s luxuriant range of dusky oranges, stark purples, sharp greens and bottomless, translucent blues.  In their clarity, saturation and tonal organization, they point to the astringent hedonism of Henri Matisse, Robert Delaunay and early Andre Derain.  Scott may call Philadelphia home, but he’s really a Parisian at heart.

What makes Scott a distinctly American artist may be the informal manner–a kind of exalted playfulness–in which he puts the images into motion.  His rhythms are fairly loose-limbed, but rhythms they remain:  insistent and bopping, shuttling quietly to-and-fro and given to sharp (and surprising) inflections.  Our eye slips and shimmies through the compositions, taking delight in the artist’s persuasive choreography.

A Hiding Place (2009) makes a game of spatial malleability, its expansive flow of yellow both obscuring and revealing what lies underneath its checkerboard façade.  The kaleidoscopic The Longer Way Around (2009), while no less complicated, is considerably denser, stacked and packed; all the while, Scott retains a distinct airiness of cadence, of point and counterpoint.  The more one stays with the picture, the more cluttered it seems–which makes the order Scott ultimately divines from it all the more impossible and impressive.

A sensitive writer on art as well as an accomplished painter, Scott described the floral paintings of Penelope Harris, a fellow Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts alum and a lifelong friend, as bringing to life “passion, sensuality, exuberance and joy.”  That’s a lot to ask from an artist and nothing short of what we should expect.  Scott brings the same happy vitality to his own art.  That its abiding sense of ease has been realized only through arduous handiwork speaks to his gifts and to his ambitions. Scott realizes his art with deceptive and winning élan. In doing so, he reminds us that beauty is hard-won, all too rare and has forever been a necessary component of life.

Bill Scott’s art–generous, witty, bumptious and true–offers a guilt-free tonic for the pleasure-deprived.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Catalogue essay for an exhibition at Albemarle Gallery, London.

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