Joyce Scott’s “Inkisi #2” is one of her sculptural works that sneakily knocks you out. It’s a wooden figurine from Nigeria that Scott clad in a billowing tiered skirt made of cast glass, beads of clay, plastic, thread and wire. Scott sewed some of the beads together to become faces on large medallions that hang among the skirt’s folds. Strings of beads end in some relic—a hand, an animal shape—that suggest some aspect of a spiritual practice.
Interspersed among the folds are columns of coke-bottle green glass that end in a bell-shaped bulge. Stare into the face of the figurine and you start thinking its features suggest a knowing smile. Phalluses, icons, prayer, wit, “Inkisi #2” hits the eyes like a totemic relic even though it vibrates with a contemporary tension. Past and present converge in an object that feels like it has something to say to you about the here and now.
Slyly funny, sexually frank, historically complex, politically astute and above all, visually striking, “Inkisi #1” greets visitors to the intimate gallery space at the Baltimore Museum of Art where a small assortment of Scott’s works are paired with those of her mother, Elizabeth Talford Scott. Titled “Hitching Their Dreams to Untamed Stars,” the exhibition spotlights the artistic potency of a creative family.
As just about everything written about Joyce Scott notes, Scott and her mother shared the same West Baltimore home for more than 60 years until Talford Scott passed away in 2011. Talford Scott’s stunning quilt works informed the younger Scott’s own practice, a sense of craft and aesthetics that Scott, as the accompanying exhibition pamphlet notes, calls her inheritance.
But the exhibition feels a little listless in the current, progressively heady iteration of the BMA.
That’s not intended as a knock on the nine included works one bit. It’s always a gift to see Talford Scott’s 1980 quilt “Plantation,” last seen in the BMA’s 2015 show “New Arrival: Art Quilts.” It’s a stunning example of quilting as multilayered abstraction: a constellation of multi-colored stars fills the quilt’s white expanse, recalling the night sky that Talford Scott remembers from growing up on the South Carolina plantation where her family were sharecroppers descended from enslaved people. The quilt stitching lays out the plantation fields. Stars, of course, were one of the few ways somebody, perhaps fleeing an inhumane situation, could navigate by night. And some historians argue that early African-American quilts embedded codes to navigate the Underground Railroad.
This heady combination of ideas runs through both of their work. Scott’s bead, fabric, sequins and thread “Nuclear Nanny” features a female skeleton, her hair a flaming yellow, floating in a colorful sea of squiggly shapes and coils that suggest the flagellating streaks of spermatozoa and DNA’s springy double-helix. Smaller, child-size skulls float in this genetic miasma, creating a sense of foreboding. The “nuclear” of the title suggests both the nucleic acids that are essential to life and the violent threat of thermonuclear annihilation.
The two Scotts thread their creative minds together in the collaborative work “Face” from the early 1970s, where Scott sewed an image informed by Talford Scott’s storytelling. The result is a provocative figure on a smeared landscape, fabric becoming as expressive as a painting’s pigments.
And that impression is kinda what’s irking me here. “Hitching Their Dreams” is installed in the textiles gallery, just off the Fox Court that greets visitors coming in the BMA’s historic entrance. It’s the same gallery where Stephen Towns’ stunning “Rumination and a Reckoning,” a narrative fabric series about Nat Turner and his 1831 rebellion, was housed last year. And last year, Towns’ work occupying that gallery space felt quietly radical. Here was a contemporary local artist getting a debut museum show with work about a rebellion against slavery showcased in a gallery around the corner from the BMA’s American Wing, which includes some early American portraits of colonial Maryland families—such as descendants of Declaration of Independence signatory Charles Carroll of Carrollton—who owned slaves.
Towns’ installation called attention to the history of the country and the museum, and it felt like it dovetailed with the mission evolution that BMA director Christopher Bedford has been talking up since he arrived in 2016. Revisiting the brouhaha surrounding last April’s announcement to deaccession seven works from its contemporary collection isn’t necessary here; what is interesting to note is how Bedford defended the decision in an opinion piece for Frieze. He reasonably argued that 21st century museums look the way they do because of the political and economic powers that shaped them over the 20th century. That accurately points out that money and the art market shaped art history scholarship in the postwar Western world as biasedly and profoundly as money and politics shaped science in the postwar Western world, putting a solid argument behind, as he told artnet News, “my commitment to rewrite the postwar canon.”
Some of that history rewrite has involved exhibitions such as last year’s “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017” and “John Waters: Indecent Exposure,” exactly the kinds of heady, retrospective work the BMA should be doing. Just as important, and arguably more effective on a day-to-day experience with the museum level, are shows such as Towns’ “Rumination,” “Meleko Mokgosi: Acts of Resistance” and “Lizzie Fitch / Ryan Trecartin,” each exquisite examples of how thoughtful installations of contemporary work can spark an investigation of the museum institution itself and the (his)stories it ostensibly tells.
Gallery goers of a certain age will recall that the BMA did just that with Joyce Scott with the 2000 retrospective “Kickin’ it With the Old Masters,” which put Scott in conversation with the BMA’s collection. As the “Hitching Their Dreams” wall text notes, “Inkisi #2” debuted at the Prospect 2 in in 2011 in New Orleans, a biennial of contemporary art, emphasis mine.
Scott and Talford Scott’s work is contemporary in every sense of the word, and confining them to the textiles gallery, which doesn’t necessarily not mean contemporary, still feels expected from a museum that’s getting better at diverging from the norm. (“Reality, Times two: Joyce J. Scott & Elizabeth Talford Scott,” a sister show running concurrently at Goya Contemporary, effortlessly conveys this facet of the Scotts’ work, as Goya executive director Amy Eva Raehse always has.)
As quibbles go for exhibitions, that’s admittedly a minor one. But as a way to spotlight two Baltimore artists whose impact on contemporary art at large is ongoing, it feels like an opportunity missed.