The 2007 Triennial currently on view at the Boise Art Museum includes a striking survey of what is going on in painting in Idaho these days, and one of the artists whose work stands out is Dan Scott. He probably would do so in any group show of contemporary painters today. As the Triennial and other events around the country suggest, we are in an era in which no single trend or school of painting dominates, and the directions and intentions are all over the map. Under the circumstances, an artist whose work seems removed from this maelstrom, offering an oasis of accomplished technique, sumptuous surfaces and quiet contemplation is bound to get noticed.
For those whose appetite is whetted by the two examples of Scott's at BAM, J Crist Gallery offers an opportunity to further experience his art without competing distractions. The nine new works that make up the show "Know Me This Way" at J Crist, rendered in oil on canvas and board, are esoteric still lifes that contain more than meets the eye.
Scott is a well-read, skillful, intelligent artist who strives not only to entice the viewer visually, but also to challenge us to decode the work, if you will, and grasp its conceptual underpinnings. None of these paintings are simply straightforward still lifes but rather a marriage of art theory and visual experience, and are therefore to be viewed as both aesthetic and intellectual enterprises. Most are quite complicated in their design and iconography, while others are deceivingly simple. In his opening night lecture, Scott talked about achieving a lush, intimate environment in his art while "infusing every inch of the surface with an idea." It is a pretty tall order but a vital one, he feels, in the face of the all-too-frequent tendency to dumb down the arts in the interest of reaching a larger audience.
Scott's surfaces are pleasing and elegant, often seductive. The project he assigns to us is not an unpleasant one. His technical skill in the medium is impressive, and the way he uses light and abstract form in composing this traditional subject matter harkens back to an earlier, more rarefied period in painting. Clearly, his time spent with the Old Master treasures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art while attending graduate school in New York had a lasting impact on him. His agenda is to have us spend as much time with his paintings as we would with those at the Met.
There is a meticulousness to these still lifes that reminds one of Chardin's studies of provincial table settings, and the interior scenes in 17th-century Dutch painting. The elaborate wallcoverings recall the japonism of late 19th century French art and elaborated on by Matisse. The point is, some familiarity with Western art history helps when confronting Scott's paintings.
The present body of work is also the most conservative I have seen by Scott. His work of the recent past was sexually charged, with male nudes portrayed both in and out of bondage. The erotic overtones, sensual lighting and low level viewpoint on the figures were very reminiscent of Caravaggio, the bad boy of the Italian Baroque. They also captured that sense of voyeurism so prevalent in the paintings of contemporary artist Eric Fischl (who critiqued Scott in graduate school). The works at J Crist are more conventional and formal, relying heavily on theories of Western art for their conceptual basis.
While the human figure is absent in Scott's new canvases, he still considers them to be figurative compositions in a sense. In the larger paintings, the privileged position a figure would have occupied is compensated for by the presence of a chair, as in Still Life with Shells and Hope and others. Of course, there is also the statuary that has a prominent presence, representing a variety of cultures—Buddhism, Chinese art, Greek mythology. Then there is the viewer who is practically incorporated into each mise-en-scene via compositional and spatial devices.
Scott also talks about "genderizing" space and objects when discussing his work. This is a reference to certain devices that differentiated Italian Renaissance painting (considered a more "feminine" approach) from that of the Baroque (being more "masculine"). Scott resorts to both. By comparing Still Life with Peaches and Mercy, which Scott describes as Renaissance-like/feminine in its subject, color choices and representation of space, to Chronos and Kairos, with its statues of Greek gods and masculine construction, we begin to see what he means.
It is, however, the early 17th-century Baroque, in both its Italian and Dutch manifestations, that has most influenced Scott. The followers of Caravaggio in Italy (the "post-Caravaggists") and those painters from Utrecht who studied in Italy and came under the master's spell (the "Utrecht Caravaggists") are the most influential for Scott, particularly Hendrik Terbrugghen. It is probably from Terbrugghen's example that Scott perfected the effects of artificial lighting emanating from a visible source in his painting, plus the dramatic foreshortened, low-level composition and bold, crisp technique. Terbrugghen also influenced the young Vermeer, who is another of Scott's heroes.
Also Dutch-inspired, is the range of objects and specimens Scott portrays. Aside from the multicultural statuary, exotic life forms like coral, conch shells, butterflies and beetles propound a Darwinian eclecticism and worldliness. In the 17th-century, such displays of acquisitiveness demonstrated a national pride over the Netherlands' global reach and wealth. In Scott's paintings, their similarly insinuated bravado reinforces the masculine thrust of his art. His titles echo the optimism of that era with phrases that equate object and sentiment in Still Life with Coral and Joy, ... Shells and Hope, or ... Peaches and Mercy.
Two unusual pieces included in the show are tabletop still-lifes painted on square canvases rotated to create a diamond format. In Square Table with Glass, colorful glassware is arranged on a square table situated so that one right-angled corner juts out into our space, while the opposite one recedes into the background. The fact that this ensemble fills the canvas from end to end heightens the tension, as does its black, diamond-shaped frame, which both echoes and contains the foreshortened tabletop. In Round Table with Glass, a circular table within a diamond-shaped frame achieves much the same thing.
Scott's proclivity toward getting us involved is also demonstrated in the beautiful oil on board called Milk Jug and Paisley. Elegantly designed wallpaper and tablecloth meet at the base of a floral pitcher sitting on the edge of a drastically foreshortened table. A flash of vertigo and potential disaster registers every time we look at it. They would have loved it in Utrecht. Intellectually, Scott may demand too much of contemporary viewers, but visually, he can make the effort worthwhile.
Dan Scott's exhibition runs through Oct. 20. J Crist Gallery, 223 S. 17th St., open Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. noon-4 p.m., 208-336-2671, JCrist.com.