Eve of destruction

Apr 15, 1998 at 12:00 am

"Now, when a human being looks at another human being, they are aware that the camps existed," he says with heavy eyelids and a kind of all-over sensual fatigue, as if nothing else mattered. It is as if this knowledge of the Holocaust alone unveils the horrendous acts we are capable of, this forever unremitting fact that conditions the nature of all human relations.

Canadian artist John Scott is speaking in a video made recently in his chaotic Toronto studio as he draws with liquid black acrylic on a sheet of paper. "I thought a lot about this and all of my work since then has been about trying to come to terms with that."

The video is 20 minutes long, and we watch it many times, trying to determine what the disparate works in the Art Gallery of Windsor exhibition are "about," and trying to figure what this funky, Oscar Wilde-looking artist is doing: His facile hand lays down the black liquid, and there is a message in the very continuous confidence of his body that makes us believe that a larger meaning is being established. Black-and-white cartoonistic-expressionistic pictures of odd figures with taut bodies and surrealistic heads for ears, or double heads bursting out of some conflagration of muddied paint; fierce, grungy little cars; a jet plane over the familiar skyline of Detroit with drawn trajectories of rockets and a red explosion; a bicycle with "trouble" written on the cross bars; another car with "done" inscribed on the door -- all these vehicles portend destruction.

"The Avatar (The Deathless Boy)" is a monstrous black motorcycle with computer, radar, apocalyptic engine and huge hungry tires sitting in the lobby of the Art Gallery of Windsor. It is next to a flat-black Pontiac Trans Am, "Trans Am Apocalypse #3," that's covered with the hand-engraved (scratched) text of the "Revelations of St. John," the last book of the Bible's New Testament. Both vehicles are a little too Mad Maxish and poorly lit, preventing a comfortable reading of the car's text; but we note the relationship, in the art of John Scott, between these dark vehicles and the apocalypse, the biblical prediction of the infernal destiny of the world.

In the video, Scott talks about growing up in Windsor and always looking at the frightening attractiveness of Detroit, to which he eventually moved for a while after quitting high school, before settling in Toronto. Another video entitled "Born Near the USA," a play on the Bruce Springsteen song which is used as the soundtrack, is rough-hewn and autobiographical, composed of Scott's "nowist" quick drawings (possibly a wordplay on Maoism's cultural revolution and the virtue of physical labor in rethinking society) that tell the story of his parents' exile from Scotland, after his uncle was knifed to death in a Glasgow penny arcade during an argument about Hitler.

His father eventually died of "industrial emphysema" from toxic employment, in Scotland's coal mines and in Windsor. So there is no doubt of the origin of Scott's concern with these vehicles of destruction, nor of the role that Detroit plays in the investigation of his borderland visions. One drawing employed in the video is of the superstructure of machinery at Zug Island; it resembles a monstrous head coming out of the landscape and is labeled "Moloch," the tyrannical power that is only appeased by human sacrifice or subservience.

"100 Workers" is a huge installation of silk-screened images of hands, roses and skulls that covers two walls of the gallery. Each image is a memorial to an Ontario worker killed while on the job, with the nature of each accident included: "James Agnew d. March 16,1899, scalded to death after sitting on the edge of a vat and fainting at the Owen Sound Iron Works (Ontario Legislative Reports)" -- "Charles Young d. date unknown, 1909, caught on shaft and then dropped on an anvil at the Maple Leaf Harvest Tool Company, Tilsonburg (Ontario Legislative Reports)" -- "George Fry d. September 6,1907, caught head in an elevator shaft, Chatham (Ontario Legislative Reports)." The litany of work-related deaths is at once horrifying but, like all of Scott's work, becomes hysterical in its absolute darkness. It functions like the sober Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, but is more effective in bringing the reality of pain to the reader-spectator than the abstracted wall of names that doesn't tell how people died nor of the realities of war.

Beneath the surface of Scott's dark work is an organizational structure that employs a considerable awareness of political, social and feminist theory. This is an art that seems framed by Marxist thinking, but which believes most of all in a notion of cultural production that is not elitist and that speaks along with, not for, everyman. It is indeed work that "my kid could do," but one that engages our society's profound sickness at its roots of material greed and ecological madness.

It is difficult not to call John Scott a "political" artist, but it may be more exact to say, as he does in the video, that he's an artist who deals with what is put in front of him.

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