One might be tempted to label Iris Scott a ‘contemporary impressionist.’ Her canvases are covered with colorful specks that indicate the effects of light on atmosphere—a process mastered by the likes of Monet and Pissarro. But to categorize Scott this way is to suggest that her paintings are mere impressions, fleeting moments that will pass when the sun shifts towards the horizon. The artist’s glowing portraits of animals, humans, and wildlife bear no such indication of ephemerality. The angle of the sun seems to have little effect on the glittering specks of light that adorn her canvases. Instead, they buzz with internal energy, like electrons swarming a nucleus, pinning their subjects to the canvas.
That is not to say that Scott’s paintings are surreal—they are very much grounded in reality—but in a reality that has been de-socialized. Her perception of reality supports harmony between plants, animals and humans, and celebrates our most primal thoughts and instincts.
Within this mode of thinking, the technicolor confetti that sprinkles Scott’s paintings takes on new significance. It cannot be explained as a representation of reflected light, or as a whimsical decorative ornament. These specks are the atoms that compose everything on earth, from the tiniest blade of grass to the fur on a rabbit’s back to a fraction of a breeze.
They also compose every work in this exhibition, from portraits and nature paintings, to iridescent dresses, all of which Scott painted with her fingers. The harmony between these various elements, and the intimacy she experiences with her work through finger-painting, is part of the artist’s narrative. By highlighting the energy that moves between us and the earth we live in, she fosters within the viewer a sense of empathy for living things. She also reminds us that there is beauty in every creature and flower that inhabit this planet.
Whether that beauty is divine or biological is ambiguous, but I find there to be a kinship between the two in Scott’s glowing nature paintings. Eerie pink light detailing an octopus’s tentacles might be supernatural, or perhaps it is the result of a chemical reaction from a hydrothermal vent. But why not both? Why do we polarize the spiritual and the scientific? After all, those are only words created to establish a sense of order. Free of language, we would continue to exist, and light would continue to emerge from the dark corners of the earth and from within ourselves.
I spoke with Scott following the opening of her solo show with Filo Sofi Arts at the High Line Nine, on view through May 30. Iris Scott: Ritual in Pairing was curated by Gabrielle Aruta and features both canvases and dresses painted by the artist. Below is an excerpt from our conversation:
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Chloe Hyman: Your work is a reminder that abundant expressions of identity are not confined to the human, but can be found throughout the natural world. You have also said that what differentiates humans is their self-consciousness, the “vulnerability” they feel when crafting their self-image. How did you first identify this phenomenon?
Iris Scott: Human culture is so much younger and less remarkable to me than the ancient art of Earth’s life story– the replication of DNA, the shape of a shell, the aesthetics of a single feather. 95% of my understanding about reality comes from observing nature; societal creations account for maybe 5% of my conception of what is true, so I don’t fear what my own culture thinks of me. I started thinking this way after I tried psychedelic plants. Through that gateway of perception, I felt like I remembered a new level of knowing, a universal truth—be who you really are.
Every beautiful thing in this world is nothing but itself to the fullest. By painting the things my instinctual brain is interested in, I vibe with a larger network of consciousness which communicates with me. I feel enveloped and loved.
CH: Has your own behavior and self-performance changed as a result of this artistic practice? How do you work to overcome vulnerability and embrace the unabashed self-adornment and excess we see in nature?
IS: When I feel vulnerable about conforming to artistic tastes, I play the sounds of forest birds in my apartment to drown out the sounds of the city. Then I review what I know about the history of art—the arbitrary nature of fashions. I recall that all things man-made will fade. I choose to be behind the trend curve, in front of it, indifferent to it, and in a different dimension from it.
CH: There is something very primal about working with your fingers rather than a brush. After all, the use of tools is considered a sign of an ‘advanced’ life form. One could see finger-painting as a practice that removes some of the social barriers that construct anthropocentric hierarchies.
IS: I have seen dogs and elephants use brushes. All artists, human and animal, know how to use every tool at their disposal. The irony is that, in order to get back to just my fingertips, I had to master pencils, markers, pastels, charcoal, and brushes. There’s a tremendous amount of human technology behind what looks “primal”. I’m using every tool available—printers, cameras, color checkers, scanners, computers—to paint in a way no one’s ever seen. But at the tip of the technology is this wonderland of extremely exciting improvisation. Finger-painting is susceptible to excellent accidents because it’s extra loose and messy and difficult to control, like spreading colorful rainbow butter.
CH: Does finger painting make you feel more connected to nature? Has it influenced your views on environmental justice?
IS: Finger-painting actually makes me feel most connected to my super ancient human past, when humanity was deeply entwined with the natural world. I am a descendent of the people that first made their marks in caves with their fingers. The earliest human paintings are of animals. These paintings are so advanced that they capture the living spirit of animals: the images dance and move as torchlight bounces over them on cragged walls. But, unlike our ancestors, I paint animals to save them, not hunt them. So art has evolved a little.
CH: Let’s talk a bit now about your portraiture. How do you select the artists for your portraits?
IS: I choose to paint activists, performers, and leaders to continue the portraiture traditions of my favorite artists—Lautrec Sargent and Gustav Klimt. As a living artist, I think it’s my responsibility to bring society’s attention to the people who are working to help us evolve as a humanity. I do this to empower the extraordinary person by introducing them to a new audience and to immortalize the energy they exude. They are a person—finite and mortal—but if I set them down into paint and canvas they become a symbol, a prayer for the ideas they represent to become a part of this world.
CH: Tell me about MangHoe Lassi, whom you painted this year. How did you meet? And what was it like to work together?
(Editor’s Note: MangHoe Lassi is a desi drag queen who has garnered acclaim for her ornate and gender-bending drag that draws inspiration from her Pakistani-Canadian roots. When out of drag he goes by Humza Mian, and works as a Veterinary Technician.)
IS: I met MangHoe Lassi/Humza through the magic of Instagram and reached out to them. Humza is a charming, humble, sweet, kind, delight to FaceTime with. [He is] also a brilliant performer, hugely successful in the Toronto drag scene. I have a special kinship with him because he’s a vet tech by day…I’m a fan and an admirer of him, as he is of me.
CH: What inspired you to reach out to them?
IS: So many people are born into families that don’t allow for gender non-binary expression. I wanted to make a portrait that would be a beacon of hope, an encouragement for anyone in that situation to follow their hearts, to express themselves however they feel is right and know that they are loved. If you can’t even define what gender or voice or walk you want to have (if someone has decided for you), then how are you supposed to live a life of integrity with yourself? Our whole society is built upon boys dressing like boys and girls dressing like girls. It feels like it’s a thousand times more acceptable in most situations for someone to be dressed as a dinosaur than for a man to be dressed as a woman.
CH: I’d love to hear more about the portrait itself. You’ve painted her on such a tall canvas. Is this typical of your work? How do these proportions contribute to the overall effect of the work?
IS: To paint MangHoe Lassi, I used her makeup and jewelry as a point of reference. Then I built the dress in my studio using draped fabrics on mannequins. I put lights behind the fabric and photographed it in the dark to give it that ethereal glow.
All of the portraits in this show, all of women, are the same height–8 feet. It was very important to me that all the portraits were taller than the viewer, striking a pose of fearless self-assurance. I did not want any man to be able to look down at these girls.
CH: Speaking of binaries, you’ve said that natural art truly is fine art rather than kitsch. I have studied the emergence of ‘kitsch’ in the first half of the 20thcentury as a gendered and classist rhetoric to subjugate all artists who weren’t white, male, and part of the avant-garde. I particularly looked at the way this affected the market value placed on ceramic figurines. But I hadn’t thought of it in terms of landscapes and paintings of animals, and you are completely right. Our society seems to have an obsession with creating binaries: art vs. craft, male vs. female, human vs. beast.
I’d love to hear more about your experiences breaking these binaries. Have you found that people are starting to accept the emotional power of natural art? In what ways have you experienced pushback, and in what ways have you felt a societal shift in the emphasis placed on these binaries?
IS: I think binaries exist to help us define ourselves—because it is easier to say what we are not. The prevailing trend of art for the past three decades has been all about trying to prove that we are not animals, by indulging in the boringly geometric and the coldly mechanical.
A constant pushback against my nature-oriented revolution is the continued dominance of high-priced, gigantic, overpowering, masculine, minimalist art and sculpture: these monstrosities brood mostly in the lobbies and courtyards of corporate towers. This art—entirely geometric, completely divorced from nature—feels like an aggression, a weapon. This oppressive presence is the agony that defines my artistic struggle—I am chipping away at it every day. But there will come a time very soon when those pieces and that style will look so outdated. It will be the new kitsch, and it will remind us of the era when we were so disconnected from nature we almost destroyed it completely.
I would say, though, that there is a shift happening—a rebalancing—you can see it in the form of blockbuster nature documentaries like PlanetEarth. You can see it in the way cutting-edge architecture like the HighLine (in densely populated NYC) is an oasis of grasses, trees, and plants floating above the road. This is the future of art, architecture, and fashion: parks on top of buildings, sustainable clothes, harmonized infrastructure, and way, way more plants. The animals will come back because our cities will become fit for life again.
CH: It sounds like you are optimistic about a greener and more harmonious future!
IS: The future is bright. Our human family is One.
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Iris Scott: Ritual in Pairing is open through May 30 at the High Line Nine. Many thanks to Gabrielle Aruta, Nathalie Levey, and Filo Sofi Arts for making this interview happen. And thank-you Iris Scott for reminding us that light comes from within, and is present in all living things.
Happy spring, enjoy the blossoms!