What’s Cookin’

What's Cookin'?
Michael Scott's Farny Fables

By Ben Mitchell

    In July of 1999 Michael Scott exhibited a new group of paintings at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He called it Penny's Grand Vision: A Creation Story. Encompassing a wide and diverse cast of characters, all based on his own barnyard birds—Penny Peacock, Miss B, Shirley, Little Miss Red Hen, Thurston Longtail, Dr. Elliot Jung, and others—the tale came wondrously alive in a group of twenty-five paintings and in a fanciful, philosophical narrative that Scott invented out of whole cloth.

    In Penny's Grand Vision the nature of art itself was the subject of the story—and here story needs to be seen as both the paintings and the narrative, for in Michael Scott's work they are inseparable. The narrative is a seriously hilarious assault on the narrowing corridors of the museum and the curator, on the Darwinian arc of academic art history, and on the postmodernist art criticism pressed on us over the past quarter century. But beyond all that—as if that wasn't enough—Penny's Grand Vision was a powerful and compelling exploration of the artist's act of discovery, a reflection on creativity itself.

    Three years later Scott exhibited a second, related series of paintings, The Diaries of Little Red Hen. Here was a fresh cast of characters, though with some notable performances reprised, and a new story line that pointed to some of our most ineffable abstractions: inspiration, transformation, enlightenment. In The Diaries, Little Red Hen seeks "Maxy Moxie," the artist's moniker for inspiration. She is on a journey, the essential theme at the heart of all the world's great stories. In The Diaries, as in Penny's Grand Vision, seventeenth-century Dutch still-life and portraiture traditions, and nineteenth-century European and American trompe l'oeil painting all figured largely, with a new admixture of Carl Jung's mystical psychology, Hegel's philosophy, Mondrian's spiritual aesthetics, and the rancorous squabbles between realist and nonrepresentational painters. Equal parts fable and metaphysics The Diaries of Little Red Hen was a delicious concoction that deepened and broadened the conceptual territory staked out in Penny's Grand Vision, preparing the way for its expansion in Scott's newest group of pictures and their story, Farny Fables.

The Winning Recipe

    A voraciously inquisitive, inventive, and uniquely speculative artist, Michael Scott has been asking some pretty serious questions in his paintings and accompanying stories. Which brings us to the matters at hand. . .

    The setting of Farny Fables is the County Fair, held annually in the Santa Fe rail yard. A much-beloved Grandmother who over the years has always won Best of Show for her delicious cakes learns that her friend, the painter Henry Farny (more on Mr. Farny in a moment), may just beat her out this time. The roosters Rough Randy and The Admiral learn that a cadre of Dutch Cowboys, whom Scott has lifted from Rembrandt's paintings of watchmen and burghers, has succeeded, through devious and supernatural means, in making off with Grandmother's special MoonPie cake recipe. The Cowboys secretly dispatch the prize recipe to Farny, concocting a scheme to make his painting triumph over her cake, thus inflating the market value of his work and making buckets of money on the back of his imminent fame. Riding in on The Night Rider's Horse of Money, one of the Cowboys provides Farny with a magical horseshoe. With the help of that charm, Farny will henceforth paint his Indians and Western pastorals with, as Scott tells us, "European eyes."1

    As if the recipe kidnapping weren't enough, this nefarious scheme is all part of a larger Dutch Cowboy cabal, itself splintered off from the crepuscular Twisted Ridiculous Art group (TRA), which made its first appearance in Penny's Grand Vision and is now masquerading as the malevolent syndicate, Western Art Appropriating Dutch (WAAD). Are you with me?

    As things unfold, Grandma magically channels Vincent van Gogh's spirit, who emerges miraculously from the bubblegum cigar box where she keeps her recipes and takes the form of a trickster-like apparition called Vincent / El Bubble. Along with a group of four Indians, all conjured by Scott from Henry Farny's paintings, Van Gogh will play the role of spoiler. Scott tells us, "He [Van Gogh] waits for his name to be spoken and leaps at the opportunity to teach us all some lessons." Who could better serve as a mythical trickster figure in this story than one of the most innovative geniuses of European art, an artist who sold virtually no paintings in his lifetime and died tragically young and mad, but whose painting Irises (1889) sold in 1987 for over $53 million?2

    Here's the thing: Van Gogh's art is the record of a deeply lived means of spiritual deliverance, a quest for the transformation of the self, the most intensely, uncompromisingly personal painting the world had yet seen. He said in one of his letters, "The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures; at least it is more fertile and vital."3 Irises, in all likelihood essentially unknown in Van Gogh's brief lifetime, is a powerful metaphor for that shambling, troubling, and fundamental distinction between worth and value, and serves as Scott's grail for an extended meditation on this dichotomy.

    In his narrative, Scott has the trickster Vincent / El Bubble remind his two roosters, "the 'wealth' they seek [in cahoots with the Cowboys] is 'in the cards' and the path to it can be found in painting, baking, and other creative endeavors that bring joy."

    Ah joy, that fleeting thing. In these visually complex, multivalent, deliciously complex paintings and their attendant story, Scott asks us: Why does art matter? What is the relationship between art and happiness, between discovery and joy, between seeing and becoming? Beyond all hierarchy, in this new work Scott explores the parallels between seeing, art-making, cooking, and joy. But who is Henry Farny?

What Farny Found

    Born just six years earlier than Van Gogh, Henry Farny (1847ñ1916) was in his time a highly regarded and commercially successful painter of sympathetic, realistic scenes of American Indian life and of romantic Western landscapes. Although he was born in France, Farny grew up in Ohio and established a popular studio in Cincinnati. Consequently, he was very much an historical fixture on the Cincinnati art scene, where Scott himself maintained a studio until recently, when he relocated full-time to Santa Fe. Farny is little known nowadays, except within the historic Western American art trade, where his paintings are now achieving such astronomical prices that they shocked Scott into his present reflections. Farny stands for something essential and provocative in Scott's new paintings and storyóthe vexing alliance between art and commerce, the relationship between meaning and significance in art and in our lives.

    Of the same generation as the two better-known giants of Western American painting, Frederic Remington (1861ñ1909) and Charles Russell (1865ñ1926), Farny was an idealistic romantic, and a realist saturated with a thoroughly Continental, conservative, sentimental aesthetic. He painted the American West through European eyes.

    Farny's first trip to the West was in 1881. Although after that visit Farny didn't return much to the West, he amassed quite a large and savvy collection of Indian artifacts, so that working comfortably in his Cincinnati studio he could produce quite respectful (and no one could dare question Farny's respect for American Indian culture), sensitive, and detailed paintings of the American Indian. Heroic Western landscapes and naturalistic Indian scenes were enormously popular in Farny's time, as indeed they are today, a commercial goldmine for many artists and dealers. He is solidly at the beginnings of an industry—there's no other word for it—that found its first full flowering in serialized Western dime novels, mass-produced lithographs of Wild West scenes, and then swept into our national image bank in the Hollywood Westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone and TV's Bonanza and Gunsmoke.

    Looking back at our brief residence on this continent is any other region or history more beleaguered with sentiment, cliché, and contention than the American West and its freighted art traditions? In the history of Western American art there is a troubling fault line that dates back to the nineteenth century work of Bierstadt, Remington, Russell, J. H. Sharp, the Taos School, and others. We sense an electric tension between the dominant, careful European aesthetics of the time—when it was standard operating procedure for any young, nineteenth-century American artist to study and travel in Europe—and our own Western artists. Struggling toward local color and authenticity, they were reaching for a distinctive American intensity and legitimacy that by and large they failed to achieve.4 In Scott's new paintings and narrative, Farny's aesthetic soul is at stake, his faithfulness as an authentic American painter. Scott tosses Farny's imagery into an ingenious and startling accord with the European Dutch masters, so that Farny's West is thoroughly colonized by figures from Rembrandt's portraits. Ingeniously transformed by Scott into Wild West cowboys, trappers, and gamblers, they become Farny's antagonists.

The Land of Plenty

    When Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in 1606, the Republic of the United Netherlands was barely three decades old. But it was the richest nation in Europe, a place of unusual freedom and tolerance, a refuge for European scholars and intellectuals, with a free press and a relatively high degree of religious tolerance: A society of abundance and extravagance. Dutch art at this moment in history was emerging as a brand spanking new aesthetic in European art, an approach to painting that was ultimately transformative in Western art history. What are the ingredients for this?

    First of all, John Calvin and his early Protestant cronies had banned all painting and sculpture from the churches, insisting on a particular manner of new realism in art. It is not permissible to represent God in an image, said Calvin, because God is spiritual, not physical. Instead, artists were encouraged to paint what they could see—the material world, people and the places they live, animals, towns, and landscapes.5

    The early seventeenth-century Dutch economy was exploding, fueled both by expanding export trade and rapacious colonial exploits in the East and West Indies, a near-monopoly on shipping, the success of Amsterdam's banks and stock exchanges, a rapidly widening agricultural base, and an expanding middle class with disposable income. Although Europe in this time is still pre-industrial, the Dutch were developing well-organized and increasingly efficient and sophisticated manufacturing.6 Underpinning it all are pious, hard-working, and frugal people. Colonial exploitation, a global reach in trade, widespread affluence, conspicuous consumption, resource exploitation, a thirst for comfort and material wealth—sound familiar? Worth and value.

    Rembrandt's pictorial magic, along with many other gestures from seventeenth-century Dutch painting, echoes throughout Farny Fables as Scott quotes from The Night Watch (1642), The Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1662), and other paintings. Who better than the impeccable Rembrandt, the most celebrated artist of seventeenth-century Netherlandish painting, to represent the collective energy of this new society of opulence, a painter of that embarrassment of riches. Who better to explore art's relationship to abundance, wealth? But note this too: In his Commentary on Genesis (1554) Calvin admonished, "Let those who have abundance remember that they are surrounded with thorns, and let them take great care not to be pricked by them." So what we also have in Farny Fables is an archetypal cautionary tale.

    With terrific inventiveness, Scott builds a previously unmapped bridge between seventeenth-century Dutch portrait and still-life painting, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Western painting, and our own culture of abundance today. After all, the still life's inherent subject is thoroughly and richly mundane: material culture, the society of the table, the mores of household routine, the ceremony of hospitality, of food, furnishings, decoration. Bounty. In Farny Fables Scott leans heavily on the still life as an armature for his visual narrative. In the still life, prosperity is made manifest through the transformative nature of art. Commodity as art, art as commodity. The poet Mark Doty says, "We are instructed by the objects that come to speak with us, those material presences. Why should we have been born knowing how to love the world? We require, again and again, these demonstrations."7 Yes, indeed we do.

The Mystery of the Essential Ingredients

    You see, Michael Scott is asking us what Henry Farny's paintings might have looked like if he had not been distracted by the constraints of his traditional education and his success as a painter in a hot market. What if he had outgrown his technical European training, if he could perhaps have risked, as Van Gogh risked? Over the course of our long and fruitful conversations he stressed again and again that, "Farny was always good enough!"

    Throughout Farny Fables there is the suggestion that something can seem resolved but nonetheless remain mysterious, that out of hard work comes discovery, that experience is the essential ingredient in any recipe. What we may learn in these pictures is that it's all about mystery, discovery, satisfaction, and possibly, ultimately, joy. Cooking, baking, painting, and storytelling are all the same pursuit. Not the appearance, not the pedigree, not the price. The value is in the recipe, not the receipt. "The meaning of a picture is never inscribed on its surface as brush-strokes are; meaning arises in the collaboration between signs (visual or verbal) and interpreters."8 The search, the journey, originality, the metaphysics of invention: Value is found in the work itselfómaking a cake or painting a pictureóin pursuing mystery, being open to wonder. There is at play here—in images and in language—a richly inventive voice that speaks for an art that is a conduit for understanding, for wisdom, for discovering a new kind of knowledge of the world.

    After all, as Van Gogh famously said, "You've never seen anything until you've drawn it." Henry Farny was good enough all right, but what more and how differently he may have seen—and painted—if he had looked and sought to see, unfettered by the marketplace or the constraints of tradition, with American eyes.

    Throughout these thirty-one pictures there is a tumult and cacophony of materiality and plenty, a record of the reach of wealth, as well as a record of the quest for meaning. In these sumptuously painted canvases and panels, Scott raids art history's larder and cooks up an abounding array of intersecting traditions, signs, symbols, and motifsóall leading toward potential. When I asked him why he mines so many images from past painters he said simply, "It frees art history from itself." Good enough. Now you, too, can belly up and enjoy the stew—Michael Scott's Farny Fables.

Ben Mitchell, Casper, Wyoming, Winter 2006

1 This quote and others that follow are drawn from numerous conversations with Michael Scott over the course of the fall of 2005 and early winter 2006, or from his Farny Fables narrative.

2 That 1987 sale was topped in 1990 by Van Gogh's own Portrait of Dr. Gachet at $82.5 million.

3 Quoted in Meyer Shapiro, Vincent van Gogh (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1980), p. 32.

4 Aside from George Catlin (1796ñ1872), who was wholly free from the overpowering influence of European traditions largely because he was self-taught and eccentrically gifted, where can we find a true and faithful American painter of the American West?

5 Indeed, our term landscape comes directly from the Dutch via its German roots only at the end of the sixteenth century. Landschap, Dutch, from Landschaft, German, originally signified a place of human occupation, a physical place of economic worth more than a pleasing prospect.

6 The Dutch were largely responsible for inventing painting on linen canvas rather than on wooden panels. Seventeenth-century Dutch looms were producing miles of fine linen, and you could safely stow a lot more rolled canvases in a ship's hold than you could painted wooden panels. The old proverbial two birds with one stone.

7 Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), p. 10. For my money, this is one of the most searingly beautiful, lyrical and heartbreaking meditations on the art of painting.

8 Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked (London: Reaktion Books, 1990), p. 9.