Walter Scott’s recent exhibition, “Betazoid in a Fog,” at Saskatoon’s Remai Modern was a complicated mash-up of visual signs that hint at much but resist easy reading. Rather than neatly summing up the exhibition’s theme, its title introduces an offbeat element—Star Trek’s race of telepathic empaths, Betazoids—to create an analogy between reading artworks and reading minds. Like the Betazoid who encounters an inaccessible psyche, the viewers accustomed to easily decoding artworks may find themselves in a fog of confusion.
Unified in its materials, primarily plaster and fabric left raw or lightly tinged with pigment, “Betazoid in a Fog” speaks in an unusual patois of comic-strip shorthand, costume archetypes and high modernist concerns.
Scott is arguably best known for casting a jaundiced eye upon the contemporary art world in his Wendy comic series. Wendy is a hard-partying wannabe art star—an alter ego for Scott, she is equally dippy and insightful. Like Wendy, Scott is a recent graduate of an MFA program, and his experiences no doubt informed his latest instalment of Wendy’s pursuit of art-world success, which debuted as a performance concurrent with this exhibition at the Remai Modern.
Introduced by Scott as excerpts from an unfinished book, Wendy Goes to Hell was little more than a table reading with projected sketches of his comic panels. This rogue’s gallery of the most pretentious archetypes peopling the academy was delectably derisive but benefited little from the move from page to performance.
Walter Scott, installation view, “Betazoid in a Fog,” 2018, Remai Modern, Saskatoon.
Scott’s sculptural objects are more counterpoint than a counterpart to his Wendy oeuvre. “Betazoid in a Fog” marks a distinct break from the language of comics that Scott has relied on in the past, indicating an attempt to forge an artistic identity separate from his comic-book practice. On the surface, “Betazoid in a Fog” seems austere and formal. However, vestiges of storytelling and expressive character design pervade the work. The same dark, gaping ovals Scott uses to represent stunned eyes and aghast mouths in his comic-book characters pierce a bile-hued sheet in Bus Hat. These slack orifices dribble locks of dark hair, implying mouths stretched open to vomit or eyes dissolving into tears. Is there a story to be gleaned about the plain, black ball cap at the composition’s centre or the woes of public transit? Are the hanks of hair a deliberate reference to hair and cedar bark in the ceremonial masks of the Northwest Coast peoples? More than narrative, these works raise issues of association and affect.
Compositions cobbled together from found objects droop and sag, weary of their role as sculptures. Swags of string hang limply from rudimentary supports of wood and sandbags. Crumpled clothes flop lazily over dowels or slither to the floor.
Clothing is a material inscribed with identity. A stetson, the very figure of Western masculinity, is filled with a hardened pool of resin in Unspooled After Midnight. Coils of black yarn sag from the tip of an upthrust dowel anchored in the plastic pond. Scott renders the archetype useless, a mere aesthetic object utterly devoid of power.
An odd hybrid of tailoring and suprematist canvas, Pirannah Pants are horrifying in their unfulfilled suggestion of corporeality. Twin tubes of stiff, snowy cloth patched with large black rectangles are pinched closed and sealed with a seam at the top, amputated from the garment.
Double Black Eyes is made of more substantial stuff, but it is neither whole nor wholesome. A plaster foot, bisected with a stitched seam running along the sole, pokes out from a black rectangle of cloth. One corner folded back reveals a brilliant pink and blue tie-dyed lining—what seeping fluids caused this beautiful mess? The shape of the cloth calls to mind a tiny sleeping bag created specially to cradle this monstrous creation during cold nights on the gallery’s cement floor. Two fortune cookie fortunes, a frothy diversion, are tucked under the weight of the heel. They are cyphers designed to suggest many possible readings, as are Scott’s assemblages.
Walter Scott, Piranha Pants, 2018, plaster, acrylic, wood and fabric, 18 x 37 x 12 inches. Photos: Blaine Campbell. All images courtesy of the artist and Remai Modern, Saskatoon.
It seems fair to conclude that Scott would rather problematize than proselytize. While he doesn’t make his queer Indigenous identity the subject of his artwork, his formal choices point to a desire to address (the lack of) representation and identity in his work. Scott’s mottled and loosely hanging cloth compositions evoke African American colour field painter Sam Gilliam, known as the “father of the draped canvas” for the innovative style of staining, folding and draping his works. In aligning himself aesthetically with Gilliam, Scott allies himself with Gilliam’s conviction that “the expressive act of making a mark and hanging it in space is always political,” as noted by José Da Silva in an online review in The Art Newspaper (December 16, 2018).
Three pieces, Narratives from Home, Suspicious Listing and A Tale to Push Through, hover on the threshold between painting and sculpture. Unstretched canvases on the modest scale of household curtains are dappled with watery red and anemic black, deeper hues marking folds and wrinkles. Bulbous, alabaster hands, at once menacing and ridiculous, extend from the wall to lift and scrunch the fabric.
As an artist steeped in cartoon practices, Scott knows that the white-gloved hands of cartoon characters can be traced back to the gloved performers of vaudeville minstrel shows. He has crafted hands by filling gloves with pale plaster, poised to pull aside the curtain, discoloured with wear and shame, to reveal a racist history casually integrated into the most innocent aspects of our popular culture. “Betazoid in a Fog,” like its many disconnected hands, feet and legs, cannot be resolved into one body, one mind or one succinct message.
Scott’s reservation about distilling his cocktail of elements into an easily consumable message is revealed in a comic strip printed in the New Yorker (March 13, 2018). Kneeling on her studio floor, Wendy grips a gloop-filled cup in one hand and a shoe in the other. A text box above her head reads: “After grad school, you might regret not enjoying the time and financial support a Master’s degree affords you to, say, fill all of your shoes with plaster, rendering them useless.” Unlike the authentic artist self that Scott is constructing, his comic-book doppelgänger, Wendy, can afford to risk being trite by making a reductionist statement about art’s “lack of use value” as an inherent critique of capitalism. It is to be hoped that as Scott continues, he will gain the confidence to let his work be as easily read as his comics.
“Betazoid in a Fog” was exhibited at the Remai Modern, Saskatoon, from August 10 to October 21, 2018.
Sandee Moore is a nationally exhibited artist, administrator and art writer who lives in Regina, Saskatchewan.