The Other Side of the Road

The Other Side of the Road

By David Clemmer

    The chicken has long been the subject of intense speculation about the obscure details of its genesis and the nature of its motivations as a pedestrian. There very likely exists some evolutionary theory to explain which did indeed come first, the chicken or the egg. Regardless of the precise manner in which the species emerged from the mists of time, however, some heroic yet anonymous chicken set out one fateful day, encountered a road, and crossed it. Humanity has been pondering the reason why ever since.

    Inherent, though not necessarily obvious, in the speculation over this epochal event is the widely-held prejudice that the typical chicken is a creature of spectacular ignorance, utterly lacking the most basic intellectual capacity with which to form a motivation for doing anything beyond the rudimentary activities of clucking and pecking. Excluding the notion of individual choice from the equation, the chicken/road quandary takes on a larger, more abstract dimension along the lines of, "Is there any order or reason to existence, or is the universe and all that happens in it totally random, irrational, and meaningless?"

    The question of why the chicken crossed the road can therefore be considered an existential one, an inquiry into the very essence of faith, free will, and the existence of God. Conversely, consider the possibilities that emerge if the conventional wisdom regarding the chicken were found to be misguided. When not busy befuddling human civilization by the simple act of taking a stroll, perhaps the chickens are hunkered down in the coop, pondering weighty dilemmas such as why Jean-Paul Sartre crossed the Boulevard Saint-Germain. (On his way to inquire after the daily chicken special at Les Deux Magots, most likely.) All of which suggests that perhaps there is more to the common barnyard fowl than one might expect. No one has given more consideration to this realm of possibility than Michael Scott. The work represented in this catalogue constitutes the second installment in Scott’s extraordinary painting cycle concerning the lives, loves, sociopolitical intrigues, and philosophical investigations of a group of hens, roosters, and the central character of his last series, Miss Penny Peacock. In that series, Penny¹s Grand Vision: A Creation Story, Scott told the story of his heroine¹s pursuit of the mysteries of the creative process and her militant reconfiguring of the historical genre of still-life painting.

    This time around, Scott’s focus shifts to a minor character from Penny’s Grand Vision: Miss Red Hen, initially introduced as the somewhat oversexed daughter of a West Virginia coal baron, with an interest in art history and an intense identification with an odalisque painted by Ingres. In the current body of work, Red Hen forges boldly ahead with the metaphysical inquiries instigated by her friend and mentor, Penny Peacock. Building upon the first episode’s vocabulary of art-historical and pop-cultural references, bird-related puns, and sly art-world jokes, Scott’s magnificently imagined and masterfully rendered vision becomes larger, more complex, and more delightful.

    While Scott is far from the first artist to employ the animal world to enact his dramas, he may well be the most ambitious. A gifted storyteller, he creates his images not with the intent of simply illustrating a story; rather, he imagines an entire world and offers his paintings as portals into that world. The conceptual and visual complexity of this imagined world is a remarkable accomplishment, and one does not have to spend very long in Scott’s company to realize that, despite the significant role that humor plays in his work, he takes it all very seriously. Upon investigating a late-night ruckus in his Ohio henhouse, few people would be more inclined to accept the reply "Nobody here but us chickens!" at face value.

    As literal objects, Scott’s paintings are the product of years of study, thought, practical experience, observation, and experimentation, and of countless hours in the studio. But consider that a work of literature is not about its physical manifestation‹the book that contains the ideas‹but rather the ideas contained within the pages. A book may be an object of beauty, but it is not an end in itself. Scott’s paintings, extraordinary objects though they are, are similarly not ends in themselves: It is the world behind the paintings that is the point of the work.

    It is perhaps paradoxical that, as sophisticated as Scott’s work may be both in invention and execution, there is a certain appealing naiveté present as well. The somewhat mysterious micro/macro-cosmic nature of the Penny Peacock/Red Hen cycle suggests a kinship with the work of so- called "outsider" artists. One of the typical qualities of much outsider art is an artistic vision that, like Scott’s, is an expression of a system of belief-something of greater personal significance than any notion of the correct manner in which to arrange paint on canvas. Many outsider artists profess a spiritual motivation for their work and feel compelled to create images and objects in evocation of a powerful vision of the universe, whether apocalyptic or paradisiacal. Scott’s vision-theoretically complex, yet exuberant in its wonderment and fancy-draws considerable power from his wholehearted commitment to the world of Red Hen and her cohorts.

    So, where does all of this lead us? More than with the art-historical reconstructionism that is at the core of the first installment of Scott’s bird series, The Diaries of Little Red Hen is about transformation and the journey of self-enlightenment-the quest for what Red Hen refers to as her "Maxy Moxie." This journey recalls that of the mythic chicken, poised at the edge of that eternal road (what road? where to and where from?), a figure as iconic, in its own right, as those of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe that Scott evokes in his narrative. The story of Red Hen suggests that the motivation for crossing the road might be something more ambitious than simply attaining the other side. Perhaps that primal, nameless chicken was on a journey, in search of its own Maxy Moxie.

    Drive carefully