Anyone who follows New Orleans art is familiar with the late John Scott. Besides being an amazing artist and revered 40-year educator in the Xavier University fine arts department, he also was an extraordinarily eloquent spokesman for New Orleans culture with a rare gift for describing the way creativity in the city tends to bubble up from the streets rather than follow the top-down American or European model. In his accounting, New Orleans lives up to the billing given it by the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called it 'the northernmost city of the Caribbean." Any man so accomplished in so many avenues of expertise necessarily puts an unfair, though unintentional, burden on any of his children who dare to follow in his footsteps, so it was with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I recently perused the work of his son, Ayo Y. Scott, at the McKenna Museum. What I came to realize is that, while there are some parallels, Ayo Scott is a different kind of artist altogether.
Although John Scott sought to translate the essence of jazz and second-line energy into colorfully charged sculptural compositions that moved with a life of their own, he was essentially a formalist with a compositional sensibility that harked to Matisse and Calder. Where Matisse was a quintessential European who brought Old World formal values to life with hefty injections of continental African motifs, Scott was an essential African American who employed Matisse and Calder's techniques in refining the energy of the streets into something so finely wrought that it corresponded to what was meant by the old African (Yoruba) term 'Ashé" " the embodiment of sublime potency. It was a way of modulating street funk into something people from almost any background could relate to and admire. That is his legacy. While the relative few of his sculptures included in this show are mostly small and monochromatic, Black Butterfly " a dancing orb of aluminum circles, rods and semicircles " is a pint-size classic expression of élan vital.
Visual art has many modes of expression, and if John Scott embraced and transcended this city's street culture, his son seems more concerned with working with street-level immediacy, embracing and celebrating rather than transcending the gritty chaos of the familiar. In other words, his paintings on paper at McKenna look a lot more spontaneous and graffiti-like than anything we might associate with his father. A biology major at Xavier before switching to fine art, Ayo Scott appears to revel in the messily organic as much as his father reveled in the pristine. Weeping Widow, a kind of storm-swept landscape with a shattered tree and disembodied Virgin and child statue in the foreground, illustrates his flair for a somewhat romantic sort of expressionism with a rather ephemeral aura. Paintings on paper can be as potentially substantial as paintings on canvas under the right circumstances, but here they hang like painted scrolls picking up irregular reflections that some may find distracting in the museum's monumental spaces.
Zoo animals are also a recurring reference " John Scott is said to have held the rhino in special esteem, a fact celebrated by Ayo in works such as Gentle Giant, where a rhinoceros is the central figure in a labyrinthine void. In Love Harder, a giraffe is surrounded by bubbles, amoeboid forms, 9/11 references and a plethora of pistols in an interplay of nature, nurture and their opposites. All of these themes come full circle in another image of an elder patriarch who looks a lot like John Scott holding a bullet in one hand while glaring like a prophet from the recesses of time. In this show Ayo Scott reveals a lot of raw creative potential that isn't always fully realized even as it hints at bigger things to come.