Bill Scott’s Bittersweet Fictions

Bill Scott acknowledges that the Garden of Eden is a fiction, and yet he is willing to paint his versions of that place, not as a way to make that garden great again, but to insist that pleasure is a crucial ideal for survival.

Bill Scott, “Larry’s Garden: Winter” (2007), etching with aquatint, drypoint and white ground in four colors on Tiepolo paper. Paper: 23 3/4 x 22 1/4 inches, plate: 17 3/8 x 17 1/4 inches (all images © Bill Scott)

PHILADELPHIA – When they were kids, Bill Scott and his best friend drew their hero Fred Flintstone, “ad infinitum.” This, Scott admitted in his interview earlier this year with Jennifer Samet, was how he got his start as an artist. The next thing he remembers is an Andrew Wyeth show he saw with his parents at the age of ten.

As I walked through Scott’s current exhibition of intaglio prints, which runs through December 24 at Cerulean Arts, it occurred to me that Scott, even though Hanna Barbera cartoons are no longer his inspiration, is still a playful artist at heart. The sentiment of Wyeth, if it is there at all, is much harder to locate.

Scott, who is primarily known as a painter, works with an electric line. In “Larry’s Garden: Winter” (2007), he uses thick, curving lines suggesting stems, branches, and vines to draw attention to the verticality of dormant plants, suggesting that, in spite of winter, a garden still moves upward. Scott’s varied use of pale yellow in the etching’s background pushes the black lines almost out of the picture plane, like a Matisse collage.

Bill Scott, “A Backyard Garden” (2005), etching with aquatint in three colors on Somerset paper. Paper: 15 x 11 1/8 inches; Plate: 7 x 5 inches

In his interview with Samet, Scott says that he considers himself a realist and that he titles his work based on associations he makes with the finished work. He goes on to say that his imagery often becomes an alternative to the unpleasant reality around him:

I think I paint bittersweet fictions. I don’t believe the imagery I paint exists. I am not so removed from the world that I think it is pleasant out there. I think it is close to awful. We are walking towards extinction. So, why wouldn’t I paint the Garden of Eden or something pleasurable? What am I going to gain, spiritually or emotionally, from painting something miserable?

For Scott, being an artist isn’t about escapism. Instead, his art offers perspective through insinuation. He acknowledges that the Garden of Eden is a fiction, and yet he is willing to paint his versions of that place, not as a way to make that garden great again, but to insist that pleasure is a crucial ideal for survival.

By the time Scott was in his mid-teens, his interests had shifted from Fred Flintstone to Berthe Morisot. At the precocious age of 16, he wrote an article on Morisot for American Painters, with the caveat that they would reproduce “Julie Manet and her Dog Laertes” (1893) in color. Until then, Scott had seen that painting only in black and white. Also around this time, Scott wrote to abstract painter Jane Piper, asking if he could visit her studio. To his surprise, she said yes, and he became a frequent visitor. As Scott has said of this period, he was afforded many opportunities to learn from looking, rather than being told what to do by his elders. Later, under the mentorship of Ben Kamihira at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Scott continued to grow as a painter. Kamihira’s mark on the canvas, Scott has said, “gave everything such presence.”

Bill Scott, “Cindi’s Wall” (1999), etching on Somerset paper. Paper: 11 ¾ x 11 inches, Plate: 5 3/4 x 4 1/2 inches

The etchings in this show cover a 15-year period, the earliest of which date from 1999, when he made such freely rendered images as “Cindi’s Wall” and “Hollyhocks.” In these works, Scott fixes his attention solely on the line. Other than the distinct, almost childlike deep black marks, there is nothing competing for our attention. In his catalogue essay, Scott writes that these were his “baby steps,” made under the tutelage of master printer Cindi R. Ettinger, who founded an etching studio in Philadelphia in 1980.

Bill Scott, “Birthday Flowers I [Yellow Background]” (2005), etching with aquatint and electric engraving in six colors on Rives BFK paper. Paper: 17 1/2 x 15 inches, Plate: 10 x 8 inches
Six years after Scott’s earliest etchings, the artist got bolder with his use of color, but without losing the authority of his line. In “A Backyard Garden” (2005) and “Birthday Flowers I, [Yellow Background]” (2005), the artist is portraying clearly identifiable subjects, but the latter work, in this regard, is a playful and beautiful anomaly: in contrast to Scott’s predominantly abstract repertoire, the flowers are almost realistically drawn, with the rose towards the lower right seeming to bloom right off the paper.

Scott has acknowledged his influences throughout his career. For a 2005 show of Jane Piper’s work at Hollis Taggart Galleries in New York, where Scott has been showing for the past several years, he contributed a catalogue essay. In this show at Cerulean, one of his etchings is titled “After a Jane Piper Painting” (2000), which represents an unexpected manifestation of that influence. Rather than focus on Piper’s typically bright palette, Scott turns to the shapes and rhythms in Piper’s work. The etching ends up feeling much closer to drawing than painting.

Bill Scott, “After a Jane Piper Painting” (2000), etching with chine collé on gray paper. Paper: 11 x 13 inches, Plate: 5 x 7 inches

In the essay for the Hollis Taggart show, Scott offers his interpretation of Piper’s working philosophy. At one point, he builds upon her comment that it’s “easy for the very well educated artist to illustrate the sociological or psychological problems of our time” as a way of suggesting that Piper “was more interested in the subconscious.”

As a young painter, Scott must have absorbed Piper’s philosophy, because his work also operates with a deep sense of the internal. Looking at one of his works often reminds me of the feeling I get when I’ve stood up too quickly, become dizzy, and see everything with an overlay of shapes and spots that only dissipate after I’ve steadied myself. Scott’s work replicates that feeling, whether it’s with paint or copper etching plates, divining the intersection between giddiness and peril.

Bill Scott: A Beautiful Afternoon continues at Cerulean Arts (1355 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through December 24.

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