Back in the spring of 2016, then–Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced a plan to replace the image of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with that of Harriet Tubman. The move was widely celebrated: Finally, a woman would appear on the country’s modern paper currency, and the face of a black abolitionist hero and suffragette would supplant the visage of a white male president who enslaved people and championed the Indian Removal Act.
Unfortunately, bigoted white male presidents having come back into fashion, President Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, stalled the plan last summer, saying, “We have a lot more important issues to focus on.” Once again, a US institution has decided not to honor a black woman.
More than many of its adherents would care to admit, the mainstream US art world reflects the country at large: It tends to venerate straight white men and uphold their politics. That context goes some way toward explaining how the 69-year-old Joyce J. Scott—the winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2016 and an exceptional artist—could spend decades on the edges of the spotlight. It’s also part of the reason why the largest survey of her work to date is on view at a lesser-known sculpture park in Hamilton, New Jersey, rather than at a major New York City museum.
The exhibition at Grounds for Sculpture, “Joyce J. Scott: Harriet Tubman and Other Truths,” was co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Patterson Sims, both of whom have long championed Scott’s art. Featuring 74 works, the exhibition ushers its viewers through the entirety of Scott’s artistic trajectory—from her early experiments in sculpture and jewelry to the artistic breakthroughs that came from learning the peyote stitch in 1976, which allowed her to construct free-form sculptures out of beads; from quilts made by and with her mother, Elizabeth Talford Scott, during the 1980s and ’90s to her embrace of glass-blowing in the 2000s—and includes two new site-specific sculptures of Tubman.
Throughout this five-decade evolution, Scott’s work has remained unabashedly political, broaching subjects like guns, racism, and misogyny. It has also always been gorgeous, rich with tactile materials, color, and an attention to light. In Sex Traffic (2014), for instance, the upright, phallic core of the work—a glass rifle hand-blown by Scott while in residence on the famed Venetian island of Murano—seems suffused with light. The tiny yellow beads that make up the small female figure tied to the gun seem to sparkle and shimmer. This is the core function of Scott’s work: its ability to imbue dark subjects with light, to incarnate ugliness and beauty at the same time.
“I try to make something very beautiful, very comely, something alluring that someone wants to come to, and then they realize it’s about race or sex or whatever,” Scott has said. “I just can’t help myself. I am a product of a most wonderful life…I MAKE ART…but there is no release from the day-to-day hints through culture that my blackness is in some way an impediment, my sheer existence an irritant. It all itches me…. Art is my scratch.”