first published in I Stood There Once: New Paintings by Bill Scott (NYC: Hollis Taggart, 2022)

Bill Scott and the Making of Lyrical Paintings

Matt Gonzalez

I Stood There Once: New Paintings by Bill Scott
Hollis Taggart
New York City
September 8 – October 8, 2022

Bill Scott’s work conveys spontaneity and an almost casual engagement with the act of painting, yet remains strongly grounded to a balance of shapes and color, all the while managing to impart a sense of formalism. His subject matter, rooted in nature and his own creative imagination, hides a greater truth: that he is an agile craftsman preoccupied with the process and the fresh impulses that ignite the choices he makes as he engages with a canvas. Viewers will respond first to the array of bright colors and lush garden scenes, but the radiant world they enter into is simply a pretext for the exploration of abstract aesthetics and moral virtues, and the visual devices utilized to arrive there. The grounding of object and mark-making ultimately lay the foundation for how the paintings sustain over time. This allows for multiple fresh reengagements, but the nature of inspiration and populating of imagined landscapes ultimately set the stage for something larger, lyrical narratives harnessed to shared nostalgia and a deep conviction of a better—still unrealized—world.

Simply put, Scott paints make-believe gardens situated among harmonious places. These worlds represent a visual amalgamation of spatial lines and planes that comprise an alluring combination of abstract landscape and still-life—the latter being a genre he’s explored for five decades. Within the weave of complex collage-like layering of forms and marks, Scott invites a collaboration with memory and desire, representative of both the past and hopeful future. He does so because his inventive mind can see environs that needn’t actually exist to be compelling and which beckon us to meet him there.

Imaginary landscapes reference an escapism which are long rooted in Scott’s own childhood. His family home had an unkempt and disheveled yard, and his parents were often in conflict during Scott’s youth. His early drawings created concordant gardens as if to project the life he yearned for as a child. His continued active pursuit of these spaces demonstrates a still-ignited fire to arrive there. Yet now they suggest a larger, peaceful enclave that he wishes to share as we all grapple with uncertainties. Denoting both absence and longing, these paintings elevate concerns about beauty and safety. They embody the desire for harmony and how the act of creation and composition can approximate such a place, albeit still only imagined, glimpses of which we experience in his paintings.

When Scott begins a painting he embarks on a seemingly arbitrary initial pass on the blank canvas. Without a preconceived idea or plan for what the painting will become, the color field application and line-making represent familiar forms, yet they are applied in the manner without adherence to architecture or arranged structure. The ensuing process is a dialogue with the canvas involving visual cues that emerge forbearingly.

Scott starts by putting down lines and blots of color onto the canvas with either a brush or palette knife. The nonobjective elements give way to extensions or stems suggesting he is drawing flowers or the rudimentary elements of a landscape, which slowly take form. The process evolves from there as he populates the composition with more vegetation and spatial complexity utilizing subtle compartmentalization, broken and naive vertical lines, and rectangular elements evocative of structures and doorways. The paintings themselves read transparently as a whole but they also adhere to principles of spatial abstraction and nonobjective painting which launched the initial effort; elements of which survive multiple painting passes and can be viewed, and stand alone, in smaller sectioned-off areas of the painting as noticed in An Exquisite Afternoon, Echoes, and The Prince of Those Hours.

Scott’s work has consistently contained blocks of color as if he were collaging with brushes. He unites hard and soft edges and prefers contre-jour, where the primary light source seems to envelope the composition from behind, a technique he employed in his early days painting still lifes when rendering objects staged on a windowsill. In works such as Echoes or Walking in the Woodlands, the spatial shift that results now manifests itself in the abstract floral gaias, causing an effect one might have when confronting stained glass windows; a bold uplifting in an otherwise subdued reality.

Bill Scott​, ​An Exquisite Afternoon​, oil on canvas, 60 x 78 inches, 2022​

Scott also utilizes cotton balls and Q-tips to apply a thin layer and scrapes off paint to remove any unwanted excess. In A Day Away and For My Friend Who Painted Trees this thinner quality often gives the work a water-based quality as if he were drawing watercolors. The eye engages not only the top layer of pigment but glides beneath to a second color, rendering an effect that contains both a blend of shades and a sheer luminosity. The latter quality is enhanced when an almost translucent layer of saturated color is applied over a white ground. The canvas’s natural color reflects back through the paint to the viewer’s eye, thus creating the illusion that it’s vivid and glowing.

He accentuates different parts of the canvas with perspective and depth and draws the viewer’s attention to the foreground or backdrop, or to the paths that seemingly meander further into the array of colorful flora in Walking in the Woodlands, For My Friend Who Painted Trees, and The Resilient Inspiration. Although the completed canvas evokes balance, Scott is resistant to consciously employing tropes or any systematic approach to achieve it. He wants the organic balance one might find in nature: random yet ever-present. While he works with intention, he is confident that his subconscious will guide his hand and purposefully attempts not to be swayed by a set method. In fact, Scott is committed to stripping away reliance on repeated methods when they become apparent to him.

On occasion Scott turns a painting upside down to consider the proverbial blueprint he is working with. He’ll paint with his left hand rather than his dominant right in order to alter the handwriting of the mark-making. He attempts to avoid it coming from the same script, yet his visual path keeps the body of paintings from degenerating into a series of unrelated pictures. He is able to retain a motif without relying on the success of previous techniques and gestures but rather challenges the viewer by bonding each painting completely inconspicuously, calling to the viewer to write the story themselves.

Imagery is sourced from his surroundings, the sparse fauna in his studio augmented by artificial flowers he’s purchased and the rooftops, buildings, and trees in his neighborhood which he sees from his northerly-faced window all make appearances. One favorite, a split-leaf philodendron looms in many of the canvases, a reference point derived from Scott’s own studio environment. In As the Night Finally Ends and Half a World Away, the tropical plant offers an alluring and exotic landscape element as its shape contains a mysterious, yet familiar, curvature. These large, green leaves with splits in their edges are often presented only in outline, thus hinting at the passage of time and movement that allows the deeply-lobed leaves to fully form.

Scott is not strictly a colorist but much of the canvas will be dominated by areas of saturated patches, where the profusion of brush work shows deliberate effusion of an energetic engagement with what are often overlapping pigments. During this development, messiness is a virtue for Scott as he attempts to intuit structural elements alerting him to the shapes and forms that will ultimately construct his subject matter. The effort arrives at clarity from the method of loose beginnings. The distillation of the painting, a process not unlike purifying a liquid by successive evaporation and condensation, the push and pull of recurrent efforts, where overlapping color and lines take shape revealing depth and perspective, affirms a luminescence within these boundaries. At their inception, Scott’s paintings are messier on purpose. He wants different types of pressure, elements of torsion and magnetism, to exist on competing planes and he wants focal points to coexist to achieve variation. Different marks convey the distinction within the body of work, but the cohesive and familiar elements, placed within the floral landscapes, retain the physical and sensory feeling which makes the paintings more than strictly abstract or of only a single type.

Although he once repudiated working with paint straight from a tube, Scott now accesses the paint tubes as if they were crayons. The paint brands vary: Mussini, Old Holland, Williamsburg, Gamblin, Vasari, with each holding its own distinct pigment traits. However, Scott undoubtedly makes the colors his own. The original pigments are altered by the artist’s hand via diluting, wiping, blotting and ultimately glazing over it with another color, the latter method contributing a unique luster which captures light. When he places a wet color above a still wet area, Scott creates a sort of glaze that works to subtly meld two color fields directly on the canvas. The overlapping achieved with attenuated paint application, particularly in the over coat of a second color, is a signature element in Scott’s work, as referenced in Overlapping Springtimes.

Bill Scott​, ​I Stood There Once​, o​il on canvas​, ​40 x 5​5.5 inches, 2022​

The alla prima technique must be handled carefully so as to not mix or push the new color through the already existing surface, thus avoiding just a single muddy layer. The result conveys radiance and an effulgence where light seems to refract off the surface and offers an illumination not achievable in a single color. While hues and values change with the shroud of color application; highly saturated colors are softened by white, with black serving to shade or darken the values, creating an effective yet subtle contrast.

Often he’ll leave the white ground visible in areas of the painting and place it in dialogue with other painted white areas rendered in varying tones of white pigment. He uses flake white, titanium, or even a creamier, sometimes grittier-textured shade; or a cooler zinc-like white such as porcelain or enamel white in The Prince of Those Hours.

Scott honors accidents and mistakes, embracing what might be seen as failures but which simply serve as arrows pointing new directions to consider. Because of the way the brain processes visually, the route to the final painting needn’t be intentional. The act of looking takes Scott through the inquiry of whether or not marks or objects he’s placed represent a known thing, he thereafter associates or disregards information and suggested references in the spontaneous moment.

Certain recognizable iconography re-emerges in Scott’s work, particularly circles, outlines of foliage, and darker vertical lines that often compartmentalizes the composition. The circles or spherical objects are particularly noteworthy as they repeat often in his work; acting as familiar signs that litter the composition as seen in Bas-relief II. He resists explicitly defining the meaning of these elements but has said the circles are often placeholders for flowers, yet by not offering leaf or flower definition they elude recognition. He accepts that viewers will effuse these components with their own meaning; for instance, some see the representation of peoples’ faces inherent in the circles.

In many respects, the circles are reminiscent of round still life elements one might associate with the shape of a plate or the rotund fruit one might place upon it, depicted in traditional still life painting, such as oranges or apples. In this case, they suggest abundance and bind the work to his earlier still life practice that originated in his initial painting practice. Their compositions also signal an express invitation to picnic in these delectable gardens. However, their placement allows the circles to represent more. Floating in midair, it’s as if these elements have left the table, much like ideas and memories which have become unhinged and available to re-enter our thoughts arbitrarily. As a result they veer toward enchantment and the indocile truth of thought-making.

Whatever the meaning, the physical manifestation of circles or any other objects in Scott’s paintings and what they might represent are not to be understood literally. The spherical form is just that, a form both suspended and ready to float away. Like a kite or balloon with a streaming tail, they’re tethered to a place but with enough elasticity to suspend and depart. As suggested in An Irreplaceable Memory, the forms are both here and ready to leave, like memories and aspirations; the fleeting moments we all experience in life.

Another possible reference point for the circles is a phenomena known as retinal bleaching. This occurs after someone looks at the sunlight or other direct light sources then turns elsewhere. Spots or circles wantonly appear in our line of vision populating everything we look at with round blots and shapes. The overwhelming of our retinas is the effect Scott’s own placement of these circles connote. Our photosensitive cells are overcome for a few moments, our rods and cones being overexcited, and the resulting depletion of retinal pigments creates a haunting surreal landscape just as if you were looking at one of Scott’s paintings.

Bill Scott​, ​Walking in The Woodland​s, oil on canvas​, ​20 x 40 in​ches (diptych), 2022​

Vertical lines are another recurring motif in the paintings and play an important role in framing the composition, often presented in a broken or stilted manner. Eschewing the old advice to never put a line down the middle of a painting, Scott utilizes it for vibrancy and constantly fluctuating planes within works like I Stood There Once. Importantly, these lines are not typically straight, as Scott appears to want to be able to move around in them or to convey that sensation and movement of a haphazardly drawn line.

It’s noteworthy to say Scott’s own optic nerves are not identical in both eyes, they are not parallel, thus sometimes resulting in the visual phenomena of seeing broken lines where there are none. The condition which resembles a symptom of macular degeneration often manifests itself with the blurring of eyesight in the central area of focus, but this is not that condition in Scott’s instance. His is often done purposely to give the viewer an example of his own visual experience. The breaking lines don’t match up exactly but instead help render temporal possibilities and movement. The separated lines also allow Scott to play with depth, perspective, and texture, as he composes the frame where the color employed is not colliding on the same plane. Thus the hues hit at different places. There is a breaking up of the sequence of time, as one looks left to right or right to left. The vertical lines give a visual pause as a viewer engages the work. They form a kind of film reel break where the viewer can experience the painting in fragmented parts as well as a tenacious whole.

Scott is acutely aware that vision operates through a round or oval-shaped lens rather than a rectangular or square field. Although not exact, the retina is hemispherical and the pupil is circular which results in a visual experience of two overlapping circles (each eye being a bit wider at the horizon). Moreover, optometry has taught us that the clarity or resolution is not equal throughout the visual field and color which does not extend to the periphery of our screen, is rather constrained to the center area. When combined with Scott’s own optic distinctiveness, this physiological truth directs focal points and compelling perspective possibilities and allows a conscious disregard for mathematical rigid elements that would contrive the things depicted. Rather, his objects breathe in how they interact on the spatial plane. Awareness of this slow, greater blurring of spatial compartmentalization offers the viewer a reward of a more cohesive whole that most painters neglect as they crowd their configurations into rectangular or square fields.

The challenge is ultimately not to overwork a painting while discerning the creative impulse. Sometimes the path becomes stuck when the canvas seems unfinished yet isn’t giving the clues of where to take it next. Sometimes the painting doesn’t hit the ball back—to use a tennis analogy Scott enjoys. It’s a nonverbal sport every painter who isn’t trying to paint realistically, encounters. He will ask himself, “How can I ruin this?” A willingness to let go of what he has achieved rather than to lose the whole thing is the question Scott answers. The balance is how to risk failure yet maintain the elements that are flourishing.

When he is stifled, Scott has learned to leave a canvas and return to it later. Once he has exhausted his various passes at the composition and when he is depleted of the next move, he will often turn a painting against the wall until ready to look later. Later can be months afterwards. The temporarily abandoned paintings breathe fresh air when revisited. Scott immediately knows they are either completed or feels the impetus to keep working on them. That distance and separating is as much a fermentation process as an opportunity for his own sensibilities to adjust. The visual accommodation allows Scott’s conscious mind to catch up to or keep pace with the process elements that have arrived at the successful aesthetic moment.

Artist Bill Scott visiting an exhibition of figure paintings by Berthe Morisot at The Barnes Foundation, 2018. Photo by Darryl Moran.

Reengagement with the “fermenting” works might follow Scott’s own experience visiting other artists’ studios or the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art. Seeing how other paintings have been made or resolved spark possibilities, no matter how different the work might be from his own.

Although Scott’s landscape can be said to be fictitious, his experience as a still life painter helps them feel real and assures their success. Staging a still life never captures truth the way an unsettled composition can, for it is precisely the uncontrived and unimagined elements that appear in a composition that give a still life the necessary details harnessing truth, and thus arriving at success. Scott achieves this in his abstract compositions, knowing how to carefully choose elements one wouldn’t think to stage, yet which are critical to uniting the composition and making them certainly seem real and in a sense they are a place we have experienced in our lives past. As such, Scott manages to make the fictitious, real. Real in the sense that these are places we have all known or gardens we have some nostalgic reminder of—igniting personal connections, melancholy and nostalgic memories of things past.

The narrative of the work is precisely about the painting process itself. Scott is less interested in the illustrative story of the picture as he is the mechanism and stylistic elements he employs to make a successful painting. Once denigrated, the quest to make a beautiful painting becomes paramount. But we are talking about beauty in a resilient sense, making something that sustains and which can unfold over time, despite daily viewings. The unpacking of meaning and possibilities that can only result from certain unresolved elements that constantly speak to the viewer. In this way, the circular and vertical elements reverberate and their obfuscated meanings speak to us and provide possibilities for meaning and discovery.

Ultimately Scott keeps the paintings from being overwrought; he knows when to leave the stage, stopping just before resolving every aspect of the composition. By doing so he communicates a confidence and invites participation to imagine further elements he might have included. The painter’s challenge, to make a painting that can unfold over time, no matter how many times looked at, is the essence of Scott’s painting practice. Contrarily, a picture that is too tidy and predictable removes the viewer’s participation because it can only be a certain way, thus eliminating a key component of discovery and evolution.

Despite the festive colors, Scott’s paintings present a bittersweet melancholy reminiscent of the feeling of contemplation and nostalgia for a place once recalled, in doing so, he both achieves a disconsolate past and offers a propitious future.

Truth is its own imperative, and morality raises questions of how things ought to be. Scott has said he is painting love letters to an unknown future. How we go on living in this complex life is a constant question pertaining to all things human. The artist invites us to join him in a location where truth abides with peacefulness, conceived through his artistic practice but one that represents a quality all of us yearn for. He navigates these realms, what is and can be, ultimately providing a framework for contemplating a better shared presence and existence. Scott’s brush work remains vigorous and fresh as he confidently renders fertile spaces for us to discover and contemplate.

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