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Liz Wylie

John Scott: War Artist 1987
The Carmen Lamanna Gallery

C Magazine #13, Spring 1987
[ 716 words ]

It hasn't taken John Scott long to attain a certain kind of star status. He has been lionized and mythologized in the media, Jay Scott recently likened him to Bruce Springsteen (see 'The Making and Remaking of John Scott,' Canadian Art, Summer 1986). This last comparison seems apt, as Scott, too, has emerged from a working-class background and, like Springsteen, his most recent work also looks at the issue of war.

Stemming logically from Scott's earlier Vehicles work, which had featured things like the Cruise missile, the work in this show grapples with both nuclear war and the social-conscience role of the artist. As in his previous work, words and phrases are integrated with images in the drawings. The viewer easily flips back and forth from looking to reading as the work is studied. The works in this show are huge, crude, black and white drawings, with a messy, blotchy, torn, raw appeal. Each approaches the central theme from a different angle, but the ideas in the pieces are clear and accessible; Scott doesn't obscure meaning by making things either too messy or too subtle. At times the work edges toward the didactic, but the drawings never turn into placards.

Between the Eyes is the largest piece in the show. Photographs of each of the artist's eyes flank a centre drawing of a fighter plane looming over a bleak, caption-pocked landscape; scribbled words have been added: 'surveillance vehicle,' 'the geophysical voyeur,' 'under (our) noses / between the Eyes / above our heads,' 'free radical laser.' The drawing with the frightening-looking plane is superb. Some white paint around the edges of the vehicle helps to visually hold it down to the blotchy, atmospheric ground. This successful interrelationship between ideology and aesthetics is a hallmark of Scott's best work.

The Eloquent Silence of Alex C. can be seen as a somewhat unfair indictment of Alex Colville as a World War II war artist, though it is an effective work. David Milne, with his lovely views of little white crosses, would have been a more suitable target, but he worked as a war artist in World War I, perhaps now too many generations away to seem relevant to Scott's theme. Certainly the piece does nudge a viewer to ruminate on the ridiculous idea of war artists. If they didn't milk their subjects for melodrama, as Colville refused to do, then they can be rejected as soulless and as part of the war-machine. If they try to show the horrors of war, the results are mostly kitsch. Scott seems to want us to join him in questioning what a serious artist is to do about the issue of war.

The Collaborationist features images of Robert Oppenheimer ('Father of the A-Bomb,' 'near death the flesh consumed by moral denial') and Edward Teller ('Father of the H-Bomb,' 'cold warrior'). They are joined together as a diptych in what seems an afterthought, but the two pieces are effectively united by a long running caption. The drawings of both faces have the verve of underground comic illustrations, and their large size adds to their power. Scott has gained confidence since his days of tracing the figure of Lenin from books; not one to mask his means, he pastes on Teller's cheek a tiny photograph which served as source. As well, on top of one of Oppenheimer's eyes Scott has glued a photograph of one of his own eyes with writing nearby: 'Artist (sic) eye (shaping the burden).' To further underline the idea of the artist having to shoulder responsibility for the world situation, two little framed photographs of Scott and Toronto artist Elizabeth Mackenzie stick out on either side of The Collaborationist.

Any fear one might have had that Scott's work would pale in comparison to his image quickly disappears after seeing this show. The strong emotional and intellectual commitment in this work are obvious and moving. What becomes frustrating is that, to extend a comparison, Scott does not have the venue of Bruce Springsteen. He cannot hope to reach the same numbers of people, yet his ideas and means are as accessible, his 'message' as heartfelt. The work deserves a wider audience.


C Magazine #13, Spring 1987.


Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.


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