Family Values, a sample of work by Michael Scoggins at Saltworks Gallery epitomizes the artist’s continual plight to remain personal, relevant, and authentic. These three elements were of utmost concern for me as an MFA candidate a few years ago. When it came time to construct a thesis paper, the Romantic tradition of organic authenticity supplied a critical foundation. During my research, I stumbled onto a related notion called Black Box theory, a systems diagram used in physics and cognitive philosophy to provide a simple visualization for how the inside of unknown systems work. For me, the theory’s known inputs, outputs, and unknown interior perfectly embodied what I wanted my process to be like. After tacking the diagram on my wall and weaving an incoherently baroque literary fabric relating the theory to German and British Romanticism, Semiology, and Algebraic infinite sets, I realized that I was off track. I eventually scraped the steaming heap in favor of something that was less of an insolent spigot for the useless stream of yes’s and no’s from professors. I hadn’t intended the formula to safeguard myself from external criticism. I wanted to protect my process from myself, from the crafty art expert demonstrating contemporary tropes and methodologies. Instead of focusing on the output and the future, I felt that I needed to channel my inputs and the past.
Family Values represents a departure from the representational formula that Scoggins developed as a graduate student at Savannah College of Art and Design just a few years ago. In his most typical work, the artist, using basic materials, replicates giant leaves of notebook paper, replete with familiar light blue lines and ripped spiral binding. On these oversized pages, he then transcribes both feigned and real childhood drawings from his mother’s archive. The artificially constructed notebook pages cue the viewer that the stylized images stand for the purity of innocence and the primacy of unchecked imagination rather than some brand of progressive mannerism.
Two walls of the gallery are decorated with a confusing series of drawings on colored paper. Smudged graphite text asymmetrically hangs in clouds of muddled contemplation, vaguely reminding me of Pecos Bill. In the front gallery, All-American Family XIII offers a juvenile self-portrait portraying a mom, dad, and a bug-like set of twin siblings in front of an all American homestead with a yard and a proud red, white, and blue flag stamped nearby. The soldier father dons camouflage, which in a Pecha Kucha delivered at the Modern Museum of Design, Scoggins admited is his favorite motif, executed in his favorite medium: markers, crayons, and color pencils. In the space’s back gallery, All-American Family XII offers an Hispanic version, substituting a dark-skinned papa, mama, and hermano for its Caucasian counterparts. The combination of differences and the drawings’ similarities present the telling contrast. Positioned in similar poses with similar dispositions, both families, happy as they seem, stand under the same sun and single cloud, the cloud oddly isolated in an otherwise expansive blue sky. From a critical perspective, both the cloud and sky function as double signifiers. The cloud doubly represents shade and storm, while the sky represents both unfettered free-market democracy and the abyss of the recession.
My favorite drawing of the show, Sasquatch taps the show’s ongoing theme of naiveté to enliven real issues with fictional components. A graphically rendered cryptid happily poses under blocky letters proclaiming “Big Foot Is Real.” The character’s ungainly clubfoot and ill-drafted right arm support his unmythological, earthly declaration, which presented in a thought bubble reads, “I prefer Sasquatch.” Sasquatch and Decorative Piece, the latter a drawing that states, “This is a purely decorative piece of art that is apolitical and designed perfectly to fit over your fucking couch,” allow the artist to speak with two voices issued from two perspectives. One perspective offers an uncomplicated fiction while the other betrays a disillusioned and premature adolescence, not unsimilar to Merlin Carpenter’s unambivalently titled painting Die Collector Scum. Scoggins doesn’t cater to his audiences, mainstream ideologies, or art world trends, despite his preference for liberal slogans like “tea = terror.” In the past he’s stated that he likes to put adults in their place. His work shrinks adults, along with their aggrandized perspectives and over-reaching categories, back down to size. His methodology is successful: by embracing the imagery of his youth, he evades confrontation with his future. While the exhibition does not display Scoggins’s most cohesive work, Family Values provides Atlanta audiences with another opportunity to view the artist’s beautifully executed and lavishly symbolic work.
Michael Scoggins’s exhibition, Family Values, will remain up at Saltworks Gallery until Saturday, March 19. During the upcoming Westside Art Walk on Saturday, February 19, Scoggins will be conducting an artist talk at Saltworks Gallery at 2PM.