What does it mean for something to be art? During an era when artists hang blank canvasses or stand naked in the entrance of museums, we must ask ourselves this question. Is it the creative process, the concept, the piece itself, or the curator’s explanation provided in the wall label? The work of Judith Scott (1943-2005), presented in her new retrospective exhibition, Bound and Unbound, at the Brooklyn Museum, further challenges our notions of what might be considered art. We know nothing about what motivated her to create, and yet the curator’s placement of the exhibition in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art highlights how Scott’s creative process and output resembles that of trained artists. It also asks us to view her artistry within the context of feminism and the Movement’s commitment to all forms of non-normativity, including the Disability Rights Movement.
While the exhibit offers only scant details about Scott’s life, to my mind her biography and her art are as tightly wound together as her vivid sculptures. She lived with Down syndrome and deafness, rendering her unable to communicate or express herself verbally. She spent most of her childhood and early adulthood in a state institution. In her 40s, her twin sister brought her to California. There she joined the Creative Growth collective, an art studio for adults with disabilities, where she began to experiment with objects trussed and wrapped with yarn and string
The exhibit is small, occupying only two hallways in the Sackler Center. The textual descriptions are rather modest, and while the date each piece was made is noted, none have a title. You will find no information about either Scott’s process of production or inspiration. Without such context, you will need to engage directly with the art. The work reaches out to viewers in its tactility and vibrancy. While you will not know the cognitive or creative motivation, you cannot help but to be touched by the textures of colors and materials and to be moved their beauty. Several of Scott’s drawings are displayed on the wall – patterned swirls, mainly displaying the palate of a well stocked set of colored pencils – but the space is taken over by her incredible sculptures.
As one progresses through the chronologically organized exhibition, Scott’s sculptures become increasingly complex. They evolve from long and vertically wrapped pieces, resembling tree branches, into fantastically complex intricacies. The exhibition design shows that over time Scott became more adept at using colors, blending colors such as brown and bronze, blue and mustard. The works grow in size—some exceeding six feet in length—and morph in shape. While the smaller pieces conceal whatever hides beneath the tightly wrapped yarn, the larger pieces reveal their content–an abandoned shopping cart missing two front wheels and loaded with yarn, a fetal-shaped package exposing a blue plastic hose, a pile of old jeans entwined with ribbon, something resembling a flower with petals of wire hangers from the dry cleaners. Witnessing the profound transformations in Judith Scott’s work is astounding, and reason enough to go see this exhibit.
The Bottom Line: This unique exhibit, on display at the Brooklyn Museum through March 29th, 2015, is a must see. Without words, without sound, perhaps without conventional vision, Scott cocoons objects, inviting us to reflect on our conceptions of art, thus moving us to pause, think and admire.