Seeking Truth in the Feathers Eye

Seeking Truth Inside the Feather’s Eye

By David T. Johnson,

Deputy Director of Collections and Education/Chief Curator,
The Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

    At first glance Michael Scott’s new series of paintings, The Diaries of Little Red Hen, may appear to be a discourse about European and American painting traditions, particularly the genres of still life, trompe l’oeil, and portraiture. But upon closer inspection, multiple layers of meaning are revealed, which have been shaped by the artist into an allegory addressing the sources of inspiration. Excelling technically, he creates polished compositions executed with a masterful handling of pigment and meticulous details. Scott’s subjects, drawn from his study of the old masters and from his observation of the everyday world, bring attention to issues such as inspiration and creativity, which he wrestles with seriously and satirically in both his paintings and stories.

    Scott’s previous series, Penny’s Grand Vision: A Creation Story, introduced a cast of 23 characters modeled on the exotic poultry that he raises on his wooded farm in New Richmond, Ohio.

    Penny, a cross-dressing pullet in the guise of a peacock who searches for the meaning of creativity, assembled a band of roosters and other fowl characters-anthropomorphized as in the tradition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm-to avenge their trussed ancestors decoratively arranged in still life oils that adorn the walls of museums worldwide (fig. 1). Deploying this amusing storyline as a departure point, Scott presented challenging conceptual issues associated with "the seduction of seeing"1 while championing his chosen style of narrative realism. As Scott’s fable unfolded, Penny was able to discover the power of seeing and to unlock her creativity with art and sex-two powerful acts of creation that the artist returns to in The Diaries of Little Red Hen.

    Little Red Hen, a red Cochin China chicken introduced in Penny’s Grand Vision: A Creation Story who thinks that she is the reincarnation of an odalisque painted by the neoclassical master, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867), takes center stage in this sequel. She has experienced "hot flashes" (a punning reference to her flirtatious past as well as symbolic of her quest for inspiration) that are released by consultation and experimentation with the "Con-cock-tion" theorists in residence at Penny’s foundation. As readers will quickly experience, Scott’s love of language and puns in this narrative cycle is integral to the paintings.

    Employing the themes of vision, perfection, divinity, and frequency as conceptual vehicles to discuss the origins of inspiration, Scott, the visual and verbal alchemist, leads viewers and readers alike on a search for meaningful content in the continuum of the history of art. He achieves his goal through the story of Little Red Hen, who wants to be appreciated for more than her "plump white breast, succulent thighs, and red hot tail." Scott illustrates his personal struggle by redefining her priorities from the pleasures of the flesh (the sensuous act of painting) to expanding her mind (the union of content with style). Using one of Penny’s peacock feathers as the key to unlocking her "mind’s eye,"2 she ultimately learns to channel inspiration‹represented in Scott’s fable by her "chicken scratches" which reveal the Elvis genome code.

    Fancying herself as the pop icon Marilyn Monroe in this series, Little Red Hen struggles to achieve her full potential by resurrecting her ideal mate, the long-lost Elvis, but she must first undergo rites of passage with the help of Penny and her Con-cock-tionists. After first concentrating on the Vision card that Penny gave her, Little Red Hen learns about The Free Ranger, a bird who channels the spirit of Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890), the post-impressionist painter who employed the symbolic and expressive values of colors and forms to enhance the content of his art (fig. 2).

    Like The Free Ranger, Scott is not tied to any one specific philosophical point of view about "proper" subjects or modes of expression for art, but rather prefers to explore many ideas and styles in his paintings, believing that these experiences result in richer context for his art. The painting titled Vision, with its open books, maps, and drawings, represent the search that Scott has undertaken to embark on this discourse about the meaning of perception and inspiration in art. His paintings in Penny’s Grand Vision: A Creation Story drew visual references primarily from the tradition of still life artists such as Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1597 /1 598-1660) or Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, 1606-1683 /1 684; fig. 3). Scott carefully composes his paintings in The Diaries of Little Red Hen to recall trompe l’oeil panels by William Michael Harnett (American, 1848-1892) and John Frederick Peto (American, 1854-1907; fig. 4), which is evident in the numerous paintings within paintings that illustrate the artist’s mastery of the illusionistic technique.

    Next, Little Red Hen meditates on the meaning of the card called Perfection, symbolized by the luxurious craftsmanship of an Easter egg in the style of Peter Carl Fabergé (Russian, 1846-1920; fig. 5) and a quote from philosopher Friedrich Hegel regarding the Neo-Platonic concept of pure form. Scott establishes a sharp contrast to the transformative and inspirational power of beauty by introducing the ostrich Sally Shovel, who advocates that "pure content" is found only in concepts. Appointing herself "Art Queen" and adamant that she is her own "Art Muse," Sally Shovel is portrayed by Scott as a caricature of an art museum curator whose preconceived notions of art limit access to differing expressions. Scott slyly comments here on the conflict between realism and conceptualism: As both of his series of oils illustrate, this debate may rage on among curators, critics, and dealers, but it is the union of content with style that is the "juice of life" for him.

Little Red Hen is next introduced to the timelessness of ideas through the card titled Divinity. Referencing the Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo’s statement about divine inspiration, Scott introduces The Admiral, Penny’s spiritual adviser who is described as "half Pope and half Buddha." He relates other possible origins for creativity including the eastern concept of yin yang, or the light and dark aspects inherent in the universe. Little Red Hen experiments with this concept with her own act of creation by laying eggs. The Admiral then shows Little Red Hen how Rough Randy, one of Penny’s henchmen from the previous series, finds clarity in his ideas by staring into a candle-a reference to Georges de La Tour (French, 1593-1652; fig. 6), who employed candles as the light sources in his oils and an allusion to the generations of artists who have been preoccupied with the seductive effects of light.

    The final card, or path to inspiration, that is presented to Little Red Hen is Frequency, which visually expresses the flow of ideas that inspires creativity. Two characters from the first series, Dr. Ming Fowl and Dr. Elliot Jung, psychiatric Con-cock-tionists who had helped Penny overcome a food disorder in response to still-life paintings, return to help Little Red Hen break through her own barriers to discover her "moxie," or confidence. Dr. Fowl and Dr. Jung also represent the opposing art world factions divided into the camps of realism and abstraction. While Dr. Jung favors the origins of inspiration in the subconscious, much like archetypal imagery of abstract expressionists, Dr. Fowl (an alter ego of the artist) advances his theory that Little Red Hen’s need for illusionism is symptomatic of her obsession with details. As Scott reveals with the Frequency card and the quotation from Mondrian, the debate over the ascendancy of abstraction as a "higher" form of art than realism is unimportant; his confidence in channeling inspiration from a wide variety of artistic and everyday sources is the basis for his art.

    Unable to reconcile the competing philosophies of Dr. Jung and Dr. Fowl, Little Red Hen is taken to the Voo-Do-Cock Soothsayer, a mystic bird who recognizes the importance of the continuum of the history of art, where ideas are eternal regardless of the expressions or styles in which they are presented. Finally, she is able to free her mind from preconceived notions‹both her own and those advanced by others. With the help of Penny’s peacock feather, symbolizing her own life, she realizes her ability to tap into the wellspring of inspiration, which results in the physical manifestation of Elvis. Now able to harness inspiration, Little Red Hen becomes the foundation’s resident clairvoyant, charged with hleping others discover their own "moxie" and sources of inspiration.

    Like Little Red Hen, who now trusts herself to be true to her own instincts about creativity and inspiration, Scott’s cycle of The Diaries of Little Red Hen represents a personal fable about his efforts to fuse realism with conceptual issues in his art. Employing references from the history of art, he addresses the role of a storyteller/painter in a post-modern culture that has reported the premature death of realistic narrative painting-and proves that those critics were, in fact, wrong.