Alley Scott currently has a solo show up at Project Parlor in Brooklyn. The paintings included are mostly large busts of her female friends, who were instructed to pose in bra, glasses, and lipstick, elements Scott sees as characteristic of herself. This gaggle of friends took a lively approach to the assignment, resulting in a wide range of expressions and gestures. Scott brought three key strengths as a painter to her paintings of these responses: a powerfully correct sense of form, a vivid and poppy sense of color, and an extreme sensitivity to psychology as it plays out in the face and hand. These are striking, crazily happy paintings. You can hardly help smiling when you see them.
Here, let's look closely at a couple of them:
Form, color, psychology.
First, let's talk about the correct sense of form. Lips look simple, but they're complicated structures. It is not hard to paint lips adequately, but it is rare and difficult to paint them well. They have distinct forms, yet the forms glide together. To really do it right, one must include the structures, but not overstate them. Scott has done that here, defining the separate parts but stating them in very similar shades of red, so that they can hardly be picked apart. Except at the highlights -- and those white highlights she has placed exactly where they go, clearly and distinctly. This looks natural because she has pulled off something very tricky without tipping her hand as to the difficulty.
Second, color. Look at the riot of greens, blues, purples, and magentas in those shadows -- and the peaches, ochres, pinks, and greens in the lit areas. One has a sense of hot intense light. That sense comes from Scott's daring and confident use of color.
And finally, psychology. This painting is like that trust game where you let yourself fall over backward into the arms of your teammates. The model closes her eyes, but her eyebrows are raised -- her eyes are hardly closed, they will open any minute if she ceases to trust. But in this moment of trust, she enjoys the challenge of making herself vulnerable to her friend. She opens her mouth, she breathes in, she will dissolve into laughter shortly.
Scott suspends her here between independent selfhood as a willful individual, and passivity as a pretty object before the thirsty eye of the artist, a thirst Scott analogizes to libidinal thirst by means of the command of painted mouth and partial undress.
In contrast, Scott here creates a red and blue color scheme under cold soft light from above, and uses her sense of form to emphasize the forward thrust of the model's jaw. That thrust, and the eyes, tell a story totally different from the previous painting. I could have it wrong, but I don't think her model here wound up enjoying the experience. She looks away from Scott, upward, as one does in a doctor's office until the procedure is over. Her arms are back and torso rocked forward in a business-like sticking of her fists on her hips. But inside this gesture and informing it is an earlier one, the gesture of surly indifference shy adolescent girls make when their breasts grow large enough that they can no longer be hidden. And she sticks her jaw out, defiantly. She's doing her friend this favor, but it's really not fun.
Scott records it all.
Here, try it out for yourself. This is how we learn to read figurative paintings. Write a story for this one:
I personally could scarcely be prouder of these works if I had painted them myself. Let me explain.
My grandfather, my mother's father, served in the U.S. Navy in World War II. As a Jew, in the interests of not getting his ass kicked, he became a weightlifter and a boxer. After the war, he wasn't sure how to put his Apollonian physique to work. So he became an art school model. Well, you know what, the models aren't blind or deaf. My grandfather absorbed all the lessons the teachers were teaching, and considered the work the students were making in response. After a few years, he picked up a pencil, and his pencil was not a naive pencil. It was informed by an entire art school education. He rapidly became a proficient draughtsman, with a particular interest in horses. His horse drawings are absolutely gorgeous.
Over the past few years, Scott, apart from being an actress and a producer, has also been an art model. I've been drawing and painting her for a long time. She's amazing. This amazingness has led her to get a lot of work; some of it in schools, some of it with artists who are really quite adept. She's been paying attention to what the teachers and artists were saying and doing the entire time. She first tentatively picked up a pen a few years ago. This is the part that explains why I'm so proud. She brought a few of her early drawings to me, and said, "What do you think?"
Her early drawings were shockingly proficient. So I told her that. And I kept telling her that as her drawings became more ambitious, and then as she began to paint. Which was, like, a year ago, p.s.
I'm proud because life threw me in the way of being a little catalyst for a process that was already happening on its own. I had a part to play in fanning the flame. It's not my flame, but I had the privilege of helping.
Scott sets an example for any creative person who is at the start of the great project of applying their creativity to actual work. She started with all the fear and doubt that anyone has. She got lucky in having a ton of talent and great instincts, and she didn't waste the exposure she happened to get to a graduate degree's worth of art classes. She hit the ground running, and once she started, she worked tirelessly, with total commitment. By the time she had a body of work of the size of a show, she also had a style and a vision that were distinct and well-developed.
What I'd like to draw your attention to in this last example is the way the painting is incomplete on the left arm (picture right). Scott was obviously painting along, and painting along, and she got the main bit done, and she got to the arm, and she said, "Well, what the hell, this is boring and the painting doesn't really need it." So she stopped.
Knowing how and when to stop -- stopping as an intuitive, living response to the painting, and not a formulaic compositional trope - is tremendously important. I myself rarely know when to stop. A painting only whispers that it wants you to stop, and it is easy not to hear that whisper over the roar of your single-minded drive to finish the painting. To hear and trust that whisper, to know when to stop, is the mark of a mature artist.
So that's what Alley Goddamned Scott accomplished between 2011 and 2013. It's actually kind of obnoxious. But it's still a good example. If you want to become good, people like Scott are the people you're going to need to look up to. I know I do.
Alley Scott: Paintings
742 Myrtle Ave, Brooklyn
viewable daily 5 p.m.-midnight
until February 6th
Follow Daniel Maidman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Daniel_Maidman