When Joan Scott first made her move toward abstraction, she was still painting landscapes.
The time was the late 1990s; the place was upstate New York, and Scott was painting evergreen forests and sloping hills, frosty winters and yellow-green springs. Even then, she wasn't making fully representational images.
"Adirondack Lake in Winter," an oil on canvas from 1998, conjures up the deep green of the trees and the brilliant white of the frozen lake covered in snow. But the shapes are simplified: The sharp spikes of the pines are blunted; the lake is more color field than realistic depiction. Everything is soft-edged, blurry.
"Yellow Hill," another oil on canvas from 1998, is a steep diagonal of summer green slanting below a cerulean sky. The piece has the look of a photo that's been computerized to imitate a painting. Scott even painted a faint grid over the slope, mimicking the viewfinder of a camera. Inside the grid's squares, the original colors of the landscape have been reduced to pools of pigment. Each one is a tiny color field painting.
Scott's pure abstractions from the time weren't much to look at. "Kiva," an oil on canvas from 1997, is plain, plain, plain, with flat planes of paint arranged in rectangles. Two vertical reds and two vertical blacks are suspended over white. There's not much of interest here, no surface texture, nothing but expanses of monochrome paint. Without the landscape, Scott seemed at a loss as to how to make a painting purely about form and color.
Fast-forward a dozen years, and Scott finds herself in a different landscape, the desert Southwest—she lives in Tucson—and practicing a different painting style. Her solo show at the Ranch House Gallery at Agua Caliente Park on the far northeast side of town traces her evolution into a capable abstractionist. In the aptly named Abstractions and Landscapes, she exhibits recent acrylics on oils and mixed media on paper, as well as the old landscapes.
Of the 18 works in the show, the best and liveliest are the mixed media on paper. "Untitled," from 2009, is an energetic combo of acrylic, charcoal and colored pencil on gessoed paper. Twenty-nine inches high and 21 inches wide, it's a frisky composition of organic shapes in white, orange, red, black and gold. Sketched in black charcoal, they're like puzzle pieces that fit together, with colors that spill over the edges.
The colors are pleasantly layered. Red leaks through white. Black appears under yellow. The sprightly work is a world away from the plain-Jane "Kiva."
Another recent piece, "Osala," from 2007-2009, is mixed media on thick, raggedy-edged paper. A geometry of vertical lines and rectangles, this one reverberates in spring greens and golds. Lavender floats in between chalk blue lines racing up the paper.
The textures vary, too. Paint is side by side with oil pastels, and the creamy paints make a pointed contrast to the chalky scribbles. Scott has studied with local painters Cynthia Miller and Josh Goldberg; it's hard not to see the influence of Miller's cheerful mixed-media works on her student.
"Secret Love," from 2009, could well be an homage to Matisse. An oil on gessoed paper, it's a joyous choreography of colored lines in blue and green dancing on white. Behind the darting lines are wider bands of color, shots of ocher and pink. The paints are luscious, too, thick and textured.
A couple of the smaller works, "Yellow Stripes I" and "II," are disciplined studies. Made in 2004, they show Scott working out the ways paint and shape can be manipulated. "I" has golden bands interspersed with blue-black, with the white of the paper showing through the rough-edged sides. A red-colored lozenge floats behind the stripes.
Scott is still experimenting with several different approaches. Her acrylics on canvas are not as successful as the mixed-media pieces. Where the mixed media seem to jump right off the paper, the acrylics seem flat and a little monotonous.
"It's All in the Telling," from 2007-2009, is typical. An acrylic on canvas 24 inches square, it's all dark red and earth-green against black. Like the others in the series, it's on the dark side, without the pop and contrast given by the bright whites in the mixed-media works. The shapes are scattershot, too, without the elegance of Scott's more geometric works or the exuberance of "Untitled."
"To Dream or Not to Dream" works the same color scheme—red and orange-yellow against black—but Scott has added some textural interest by rolling on some paint and scraping other passages away. "I Could Have Danced All Night" has ribbons of green zipping around over red—rather like the leavings on a Christmas morning.
"The Road to Somewhere," 2007, is probably the best of the lot. It's got the standard colors—red and yellow against black—but it has white to relieve the monotony. And the shapes are more distinct. Curving bands in white gyrate across the earth colors, a hint that Scott may yet again be inspired by the land. Here you can see the influence of Goldberg, a Tucson abstractionist whose large paintings sometimes suggest imaginary landscapes.
Scott is brave to exhibit paintings representing the multiple stops on her artistic journey, both good and not so good. Those energetic white bands, those roads to somewhere, suggest a road map for the journey yet to come.