Maureen Cummins: Piece Work

at Artemisia, through October 28

Judith Scott

at Intuit, through November 25

By Fred Camper

It’s not easy these days to forge socially involved work that doesn’t replace modernist ambiguity or postmodern relativism with univocal propaganda–that seeks to raise political issues without insulting the viewer’s intelligence. Maureen Cummins’s seven pieces at Artemisia speak out on familiar subjects using familiar means, but her very straightforwardness, combined with often elegant presentations, is convincing.

Her works refer to traditional women’s crafts, such as sewing, and use found materials and texts: the viewer is reading as much as looking. Crime vs. Punishment consists of 130 “court case documents” (found briefs and decisions) mounted in a seven-foot-wide grid; printed over each one is a text describing an unrelated historical crime and its punishment or an outrageous law: in 1920, it was illegal in 32 states “to carry any flag but that of the state and country.” Often the punishments seem excessive, and often the laws reveal that our criminal justice system treats women and African-Americans unjustly: in 1936 a young black man got life in prison for stealing $1.50; lynchers have been let off easily. Wrongful convictions and wrongful acquittals are included, as well as cases where Cummins thought the punishment reasonable. The texts are printed in shades varying from dark black to light gray, indicating how disproportionately heavy or light she thought the sentence was.

Choosing compelling cases revealing a history of bad laws and court decisions, Cummins produces a fascinating labyrinth of injustice. Mounting the court documents sideways and the superimposed texts at right angles to them, the artist suggests two viewpoints on justice, hers and the court’s. And the piece has a curious elegance: the grid also includes blank colored pages that Cummins found folded together with the documents. Yet these dryly official pages are hardly pretty enough to seem decorative.

A work in progress, Crazy Quilt, incorporates stories that are in some ways even more compelling: the testimony of female mental patients, often from the 19th century, and those who knew them. It seems most were not insane at all. “Each doctor felt my pulse, and without asking a single question, both pronounced me insane.” “She claimed that she was sent to Elgin by a son-in-law who wanted her out of the house so that he and his family could live in it.” Cummins has stitched these texts in white on black patches of cloth; the quilt also includes other, often patterned patches. The artist’s obvious care in hand stitching these texts encourages an attentive reading while the quilt as a whole recalls women’s art making, a combination that deepens indignation at oppression: just as quilts were not taken seriously as art, the human rights of these female mental patients were ignored.

Cummins, who lives in New York City, says in her statement that a book’s “use of time, pacing and drama, its intimate relationship to the human body,” has long fascinated her; she describes four of her pieces here as artist’s books. But even Crime vs. Punishment and Crazy Quilt resemble books: one is encouraged to thread one’s way through, perhaps rereading one passage or another.

Two of Cummins’s artist’s books are more booklike than the others, with pages to turn. Checkbook is one of an edition of 50; each has 30 actual old checks from a cache of 3,000 that Cummins purchased at a flea market. This checkbook covers two days in 1911, and each check has “PAID” holes punched in it. On the back of each check she’s printed a different definition of the word “check,” from the broadly applicable to specialized definitions from chess and hunting. The final definition, spread over three checks, is very broad, defining a “check” as a “process” that “prevents the progress or prosperity of a people” and imposes “penalties against the poor,” among other things. Clearly this definition comes from no dictionary–it’s Cummins’s open argument of her case. Printing it alongside more objective definitions on the backs of real checks, she essentially inserts her belief into the official system of exchange the checks represent. Her open manipulations of the materials and obvious social convictions combine to give her work its rich mix of personal integrity and clear respect for the viewer.

Favoring outspokenness, Cummins’s art revolves around social issues. But Judith Scott’s 31 untitled sculptures at Intuit remind us of the equal validity of work that makes silence its subject. Wrapping a core of found materials in yarn and twine, Scott creates tightly bound surfaces whose wrapped and sewn fibers are at once beautifully ordered and chaotic. Abstract and denying entry, they reminded me a bit of Christopher Wilmarth’s blank, impenetrable works of etched glass supported by metal.

But the fact that Intuit is a center for outsider art establishes a different context for Scott than artists in Wilmarth’s vein. Wall texts, a video, the current issue of Outsider magazine, and a book on Scott, all available at Intuit, make it just about impossible to experience her art independent of her biography. Born in 1943 with Down’s syndrome, she gradually became deaf and now rarely if ever speaks. She grew up alongside, and slept in the same bed with, a “normal” twin sister, Joyce, but when they were seven, Judith’s parents institutionalized her, as was common at the time. Joyce describes the facility as a “nightmare,” a hellhole of foul odors and bizarre noises and boredom. (Indeed, it seems Judith’s testimony, if she could give it, would belong in Cummins’s Crazy Quilt.)

Judith remained in the institution for 35 years, until an “epiphany” caused Joyce to take her out and move her to California, where Joyce lives. Judith was enrolled in Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center, where for some months she drew and painted without showing much interest–in John M. MacGregor’s book on Scott, he compares those early works to the unfocused art of very young children. But then Judith encountered a fiber class and began wrapping objects. MacGregor provides abundant evidence that she knows quite well what she’s doing: entirely self-motivated, she works for weeks on a piece, makes all her own choices, and recognizes her work at exhibits. Someone in the video recounts an incident in which all the paper towels in a building disappeared because Scott had taken them for her cores.

It’s impossible to know Scott’s intent, though speculating can be interesting. Most of the shapes here are nonrepresentational, but a few resemble human figures; indeed, MacGregor suggests that Scott regarded some sculptures as her babies, and Joyce thinks that one early piece showing two figures together represented the two sisters. In all but a few cases, Scott covers the core objects so completely that their identity cannot even be guessed.

Much modern work is organized around contradictions–in Cummins’s case, for example, between the official or everyday yet elegant look of her pieces and their urgent texts. Scott, however unschooled, is no exception. Overall her forms are bold and assertive, a curve or a sharp edge jutting into space; some shapes are highly unusual. But the tightly bound yarn, which is sometimes sewn or almost woven, contains and conceals, pulling the parts of the piece together and inward: her interiors are walled off from the world by materials that might be used in clothing but might also seal up boxes. Of course one thinks of the powerful self-protective instincts that must have kept Scott’s spirit alive through 35 years in a “circle of hell,” to use her sister’s words. And though her surfaces are characterized by a mixture of variation and repetition, they don’t quite “sing,” or even speak out, openly. Yet their blankness, even muteness, is moving in itself.

As part of the exhibit Intuit has provided a table with colored yarns where visitors have begun to assemble their own Scott-like piece, wrapping the yarn around found elements; doing so gives you a hint of the time and care Scott’s work requires. Indeed, the viewer-created piece is a great answer to that perennial insult to abstract art: “My kid could do that.” This work in progress, including the threads added by yours truly, looks like an incoherent mess beside Scott’s intense, powerful forms.