Robert D. Scott - Eight Paintings - The Middler - September 22 - October 27, 2019
Robert D. Scott paints cityscapes of New York City, mostly of the night. There are subway trains and brownstones, and generally little else. Their simplicity is their strength and what makes the work unique almost in spite of itself, a humbleness at odds with contemporary art's tendency towards individualistic self-branding. As Thom Andersen notes in Los Angeles Plays Itself, regarding film but equally applicable to painting, "New York seems immediately accessible to the camera. Any image from almost any corner of the city is immediately recognizable as a piece of New York." Though none of these paintings match up with my image of the New York I experience daily, they read as unmistakably New York, just as Hopper's urban scenes still depict an identifiable New York nearly 100 years after the fact. It captures an archetype of the city, the way we pictured it as children. The show spans over 30 years, with one painting from 1978, one with no date, and the remaining six spanning from 1999 through 2009, but the viewer would be hard pressed to identify a chronology by eye, which is not to say they are indistinct from one another. East River at Night, the oldest painting, is a maritime image of lights on the water, a boat, and harbor buildings, and Urban Falcon is the only painting from a high enough vantage to paint the city with a long depth of field. The rest of the paintings deal with apartment buildings flatly in the middle distance. Between the most overtly similar of these, a gentle sensibility for composition becomes apparent in the details; minuscule figures on fire escapes and the few lights on in the windows, the arrangements of buildings that remain distinct without straining for inventiveness or becoming monotonous.
The two most clearly divergent works, Rooftop Crucifixion and Supernatural City, Hell Express, while keeping to the middle distance format, introduces dramatic imaginary elements that are all the more striking given the austerity of the rest of the show. Supernatural City introduces a flurry of Halloween details: shadowy faces and figures in the sky, fire escapes painted a contrasting red that makes them resemble lightning, and a subway in the foreground decorated with obviously imagined graffiti tags such as "HADES666", and "GODZILLA". Though vaguely threatening, the result reads more as Halloween "spooky" and does not seem particularly psychological. From a technical angle, however, it stands out for its density and brightness of color. Each of these details seems to sit on top of the composition rather than integrating. This may literally be the case, as the checklist notes the materials for this painting as oil, pastel, and paint marker where the rest are only oils. Far more inscrutable is Rooftop Crucifixion, where, on a telephone pole facing away from the viewer at a roughly 300 degree angle, one sees the bearded profile, left hand, and left leg of a man attached to the pole as on a cross. There are no other overtly religious references in the rest of Robert's work that I've seen, unless one counts "HADES666", and to the right of the cross, in the same style as the artist's initials, is written "AD 2004", apparently an oblique reference to the time of Christ in a manner that is neither trivializing nor entirely pious. The composition seems more driven by a moment of associative logic noting the similarity between telephone poles and the cross of the crucifixion than any purely religious feeling. The effect, already striking but doubly so in such a context, recalls nothing so much as Ian Hamilton Finlay's metaphoric constructions, like an aircraft carrier as a birdbath or the resemblance of a sailboat to a lemon.
Though Scott has no real ties to the art world, his work is not so much outsider art as a folk art without a tradition. It seems like some tradition like this could and should exist, considering the immediate familiarity of the imagery, a continuity of aging New Yorkers who paint the city simply as a pastime without any pretension. They feel ahistorical in a way, but out of a blissful unconcern, not naivety. This is where the charm of his work emerges in comparison to the art it most closely resembles, for instance the art shows you used to see in coffee shops.* Those shows generally lack something, like an undergraduate whose fine art aspirations outstrip their technical abilities or a retiree who has picked up photography more out of idleness than interest. Robert D. Scott's paintings lack nothing. They are precisely what they want to be, and if they have apparently changed little over four decades it is because of their sufficiency. If his work is not immediately idyllic, it becomes so in relation to his practice as a whole, like a romantic image of the plein air painter who spends his Sundays at the easel, an untormented Cézanne. If outsider artists garner their appeal from their isolated singularity, an untutored abundance of creativity often motivated by mental illness, Scott is a sort of inversion where his work appeals through its isolated generality. I can't say I know his motivations, but in 2019 I think his modesty and consistency holds more of a lesson to contemporary art than even the most fantastical of outsider artists.
*(The curator came across the artist's paintings by chance at the Kips Bay Public Library, and most of his previous exhibitions have been at libraries.)