As remarkable as the fiber art works of Judith Scott are in person, it adds another dimension to see her at work in the short film, Judith Scott in the Studio, that plays in rotation with five other short films in the Kimball galleries video space. Here there are none of the usual scenes of the artist, arms folded, tool in hand, staring at the work in progress, either judging what has been done or pondering what comes next. Scott’s hands are never still. When she finishes attaching a variety of strands to one side and turns the work over, she already knows right where each goes in the complex web of the other side. When she adds to the armature she has concealed under layers of textile material, the deliberate addition seems almost casual, yet soon takes its place in the totality. If seems as though she knows precisely where she’s going and feels a tremendous urgency to get there. This may be because she spent 42 years institutionalized before her sister was able to liberate her and they could discover how she was an artist all along.
When it comes to art, whoever first said “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” missed an essential part of the equation. That number may approximate its value to the viewer, but it leaves out a necessary element: its value to the artist, for whom words are hardly a fair measure. Artists may tell you the work they do makes it possible for them to live in their own skins: try putting a value on that. Many artists create because they must, and others simply because it comes so naturally to them and only makes sense. Their relationship with materials is far richer and more complex than its mere acquisition, though anyone who has been in a studio knows that’s not trivial either. But it’s not the material they gain that matters, it’s the material change they bring about. Proof can be found on a most fundamental level. For instance, take the many artists whose creative efforts are facilitated by Creative Growth, an Oakland, California facility that since 1974 had helped hundreds of differently-abled artists discover ways they can make art. Many of them have developed sophisticated and refined methods of art production and spend hours daily in their practice.
There are ten of these artists whose works are part of More Than a Thousand Words, and no two of them approach what they do in the same way, either in content or technique. Where Scott may embed objects of personal significance in her elaborate textile environments, sometimes peeking out and other times hidden, Dan Miller builds up layers of words and gesturally shaped letters using adroitly chosen markers in what becomes an illusionistic, 3-D matrix. Those who have seen his early stages report that his writing is rich in imagery and recalls favorite topics, primarily electrical appliances, as that term is used in hardware stores: light bulbs and their sockets being two examples. The more than half a dozen examples here show how he uses not only different colors and transparency to create layers and depth, but varies his line from dense and covering to spidery, sometimes agitated, and at others, architectonic.
Three of these artists also wrote and produced videos that are here as well, and it’s worth comparing their static art to their animations. William Tyler’s Robot and Son uses cutout and hand-colored figures with craft store eyes and bodies linked together by brass fasteners, pixilated over hand-drawn starry skies and cratered moonscapes to tell the story of a dad and his son who take time out to leave their spaceship and visit the moon, where they meet and get to know four ghost-like, but friendly moon creatures. The linear quality also characterizes his drawings, which are more complex and serve to frame long passages of text, lettered in upper case, that express his concern about ethical behavior and the welfare of others. Susan Janow works in multiple media, including clay, wood, textiles, and the hand-colored grids on paper showing here. Her absolute brilliance, though, shows up best in what is just one of her videos, Questions, a widely shown mock interview in which she sits passively while her pre-recorded voice asks her something like a hundred of the sometimes clueless, other times daunting questions endlessly repeated in such circumstances. What is your favorite animal? Your first memory? What is one thing you’ll never do again? Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer? And finally, What do you think about when you’re alone? Her inert presence and sphinx-like expression speak eloquently as the questions tumble on and trip over each other.
Artist William Scott cannot be said to lack an expansive vision. His assembly of exuberant Black extroverts surrounded by unfathomable phrases offers just a glimpse of the science-fiction utopia they came out of, which is found in a body of works not present here, but hinted at in the accompanying texts. His future take on San Francisco, which he calls “Praise Frisco,” accompanies a sample from his “Inner Limits” project, in which a pair of what look like stylish busses but, we are told, are ‘skyline citizen ships,’ go about the work of returning the dead to life in a “wholesome encounter.” Strange as it may sound, it’s important proof that a supportive community can help produce healthy, positive works of imagination to stand alongside the violent stories and illustrations produced by artists such as Chicago’s Henry Darger, an outsider artist who worked in complete isolation.
A century ago the art world’s attention was riveted on works made by artists who were called “naive” and “primitive.” Think of the influence of African masks, which were shown in European museums, on the inventors of Cubism and Surrealism. Later in the 20th century, Art Brut celebrated uneducated artists and practitioners who lived on the margins of society or were committed to institutions. We may well ask what would their lives and art have been like if they had been able to work in a supportive environment. Today, an argument frequently heard is that no one can be truly naive any more, nor should be demeaned by epithets like “primitive.” Just as the cassette brought rock ‘n’ roll to the most remote corners of the globe, and the music made in those places back to the whole world, so video devices and cell phones have made all but the most isolated cultures part of the global visual exchange. If More Than a Thousand Words, the product of a community that exists to guarantee connectivity, proves anything it is that technical sophistication is no threat to fundamental impulses. Today’s equivalent of yesterday’s “outsiders” are still capable of inventing themselves as artists and are still making courageous work. They just don’t have to do it in vacuum, all by themselves.
More Than a Thousand Words, Kimball Art Center, Park City, through Aug. 14.