Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Cast of Characters

Scott Fife's eccentric portraiture


Northwest sculptor Scott Fife sees "trouble" coming to Boise. That's his vision, anyway, for the remarkable series of portrait heads he has been working on for about five years, inspired by Anthony Lukas' exhaustive 1997 study, Big Trouble. Lukas' book explored in detail the legal, political and social ramifications of the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg at his home in Caldwell in 1905. It is a saga that resonated with Fife, who was born and raised in northern Idaho, and he decided to treat the subject in his own inimitable way, bringing his considerable technical and interpretive skills to bear. They are fascinating works that bring an important chapter in local and national history to life, and Fife is looking for a venue to exhibit them in Boise.

Fife is a sculptor whose primary medium is cardboard, a material traditionally considered too mundane, inflexible and temporary to be the stuff of fine art. But Fife transforms cardboard into a medium of unlimited potential, instilling it with an expressive power that belies its low-brow connotations. His art is a realism shaped, in part, by more radical practitioners of the Pop aesthetic, namely Ed Kienholz, Claes Oldenburg and H.C. Westermann, but also by the geography and culture of the American West and his own taste for the macabre. For years Fife painted his creations, realistically replicating metal, fabric, wood, plastic, leather and more, enhancing their illusionary aspect.

In 1994, Boise Art Museum presented Still Lives: Scott Fife, a 15-year survey of his work that included furniture, interiors, animal subjects and artifacts that alternately echoed 1940s Hollywood, a Poe-like Gothicism and hardscrabble life on the Palouse. During this period, Fife switched from commercial to archival grade cardboard, and the newer work leaned more toward painted relief than sculpture. On September 18, 2004, the Tacoma Art Museum opened its 25-year retrospective of Fife's art, which documents his return to full sculptural form, including portrait sculpture beginning with historical figures and moving on to his current focus on celebrity figures like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Pablo Picasso. It is an impressive show.

In Tacoma, Fife's Big Trouble portrait sculptures are gathered together in a separate area of the exhibition, all fifteen of them plus the humorous hung jury represented by twelve shrunken heads. Exhibited individually on plain, sanded, Shaker-looking wood pedestals, the heads, many of which are larger than life-size, are presented in various positions, some upright, others on their sides or tipped forward, with Steunenberg himself lying face-up, in a death pose. Embarking on this project, Fife borrowed the classical style of the Roman Republican portrait busts and by leaving the gray, archival cardboard unpainted, he evokes the feel of sculpted stone. The seemingly helter-skelter manner of display is meant to suggest an archeological find and an underlying notion of discovery. Individual plaques explain the role of each character in the Boise courtroom drama almost 100 years ago.

Yet these portraits are not made of stone. Fife imbues them with a range of emotions, suggesting "struggle, determination, doubt, anxiety, authority, deceit and inscrutability." Some look you right in the eye, others stare off into space or look askance, and we get a sense of the psychology behind the public face. Standing amongst this colorful cast of characters, one understands their haunting, even disturbing, presence and why the artist is eager to show them.

The subjects include defendant "Big Bill" Haywood, the leader of the mineworker's union charged with conspiracy to murder along with two co-defendants and the confessed assassin himself, a devilish Harry Orchard, plus a who's who of prominent figures of the time involved in the scandal: defense attorney Clarence Darrow, actress Ethel Barrymore, socialist Eugene Debs, famed Pinkerton detective James McParland, even President Theodore Roosevelt. The Idaho contingent includes Senator William Borah and attorney (and future governor) James Hawley, both of whom served as prosecutors in the case, presiding Ada County Judge Fremont Wood, and, of course, the victim, Governor Steunenberg.

Ironically, in choosing not to paint these sculptures and remaining true to his raw materials, the artist has actually enhanced the life-like realism and vitality of these portraits. Red pencil marks from the design/cutting process and the pale yellow of the carpenter's glue enliven the images, with the exposed black screw heads and texture of the archival cardboard suggesting the look of rough, blemished skin. Fife's treatment of the hair, too, is an invigorating element. But it is the eyes that really nail you--they are a technical tour de force.

One marvelous idea Fife has had for showing this work in Boise is to exhibit it at the Old Idaho Penitentiary. It is a setting for which these portraits seem made given the historical period they address. But whether it can be arranged there or another venue, is "trouble" Boiseans deserve to experience.

For more information concerning Fife's work, contact Chris Schnoor c/o Boise Weekly.