Iris Scott: The Big Wonderful
By VITTORIA BENZINE, May 2020
For the past six months, renowned finger painting maestro Iris Scott has been working in a quaint shack outside of a little town called Coyote, New Mexico. In New York City, Scott established a strong reputation among critics like Jerry Saltz and Anthony Haden-Guest — as well as a significant social media following — for her dizzying use of color in painting scenes of startling intricacy using only her be-gloved hands. Now, near Coyote, once proclaimed “the toughest town in the West” by The Chicago Tribune, Scott’s new home sits atop The Big Wonderful, a massive swath of conservation land parceled into a few vast, idyllic lots.
The Big Wonderful, Scott explained, “is just as much a real place as it is a fitting name for what the world needs— everyone could use a piece of the big wonderful right now.” The Big Wonderful is also the name of her forthcoming solo show at Burnet Fine Art in Wayzata, Minnesota, in collaboration with her NYC gallery, Filo Sofi Arts.
Scott’s work for The Big Wonderful began in August 2019. She moved there in order to reconnect with nature. “I wanted a place where I could cuddle with rattlesnakes,” Scott gushes in her statement for the show. “Paradoxically, I’ve had an intense desire to paint lush flora and deep seascapes— still the desert, just flooded,” Scott later stated. “These are the subjects that I definitely would have been focusing on if I was ten years old again, but with this skill set. I'm trying to sit down with my crayons and actually paint what I instinctually wanted to without the pressure of adulthood.”
Scott has espoused her desire “to revolutionize the art world with the tips of my fingers.” In conversation, she elaborated, “I’ve witnessed a pretty melancholy art culture for most of my life. Our modern art world tends to put high value on struggle and difficulty.” While Scott admitted that life is rife with tumult, I noticed that she wastes no time over-intellectualizing abstract concepts or romanticizing pain. Scott’s biography does indeed read slightly like a revolutionary manifesto: “The era of excluding animals, landscapes, plants from high art is over. Right now. Because I declare it.” A self-labeled “Instinctualist,” she makes work that seeks to “revel in beauty and color.” This translates into railing against unhappiness—and indifference—with unadulterated joy and hope. Scott’s biography asserts, “The next rebellion will be a non-rebellion. I want to be the champion of beautiful, non-rebellious art.”
Scott celebrates life’s diverse richness with her blockbuster works. She explained, “I would rather focus my energy on rebalancing the collective art experience towards play, childlike positivity, and a sense of ‘WOW this whole world is miraculous!’” Most often, her canvases play host to natural scenes, because she feels “we have stopped paying attention to the animals and plants” despite the fact that “we are at a moment where our whole planet is quite literally on the verge of burning down.” Her work moves beyond a sense of aesthetic expression to a clear and unapologetic mission statement, which she declared to me with disarming firmness: “I am on this planet to champion the precious creatures, to embody and tap into their feelings, needs, and emotions. A brown, plain little moth under a magnifying glass, look at it—it’s a flying cat; our planet’s animals are so charming if you take the time to get intimate with them.”
She characterizes her collection for The Big Wonderful as a series of snapshots, perhaps captured by a nature lover on a walk, documenting the treasures scattered through an untainted environment. Scott considers these natural moment still-lives the catalyst of a new phase in her career, ensconced in New Mexico’s sprawling wilds and dedicated to capturing life’s innate beauty with renewed vigor. The show’s collected works blend the ceaseless inspiration Scott has found amongst her animal neighbors with wildlife photography from Peggy Burnet, one of Iris’s collectors and friends. Peggy, along with her husband Ralph Burnet, are renowned art collectors and philanthropists who own the gallery that will debut these new works.
Each work for The Big Wonderful hangs from this new collection like a juicy fruit, sun-ripened for viewing perfection. The paintings glisten with saturated colors and palpable textures. There is a certain voyeuristic mystique that coalesces when facing these paintings, like suddenly stumbling on a patch of wild berries inside a gallery. It's more about the moment, the fact that you end up in front of these works at the fortuitous instant of their peak lusciousness. Like berries found in the wild, the viewer understands these paintings weren’t tailor-made with their eyes in mind. They are for you, and they are for everyone, but mostly they are for themselves. Scott’s vibrant creatures have lives of their own. Fish luxuriate on pillows of succulents. A spotted owl gazes regally from a throne of branches, peering out from foliage towards a witnessing universe or the indifferent dust. A fleeting idea. A moment captured by Scott’s able hands.
This peculiar, otherworldly place has even enriched Scott’s already advanced experience with color. She waxed poetic describing a hue that’s transfixed her recently: “The blue sagebrush, the tip of it gets lit up by the low sun. It’s this yellow, blue, silver. It really is one color, but I can only kind of describe it as yellow, blue, silver. It is a sexy color.”
New Mexico’s wild atmosphere draws a personal connection. “I grew up outside of Seattle, in the country, down a long driveway with two stay-at-home parents. I'm recreating my childhood in this move,” Scott explained. While America offers a vast array of pastoral landscapes, Scott purposefully chose this particularly rugged outland location. “New Mexico has a way of choosing you or calling you,” she continued.
While she was still living in NYC, one of Scott’s friends suggested she belonged in New Mexico. The artist decided to check it out for herself. “Sure enough, I landed and I was like, ‘This is my home.’” The inexplicable familiarity of the desert’s sights and scents struck her. “It sort of seems off planet, this place,” she mused. “I like the idea of letting my headspace sort of go off planet, that works for me. It’s a little scary, this landscape is frightening. I feel it jolts me into action.”
The Big Wonderful marks two years since Scott made her New York debut in an Armory Week solo show at Filo Sofi Arts. Despite her critical and popular acclaim, she remains steadfastly humble and future-oriented: "I've begun to make my mark on the art world...I've just begun. I’ll probably be making my best work when I’m in my 70s"
Scott has dabbled in imbuing her work with more symbolism, but visceral reactions still prove her predominant impetus. “Above all else, I would like for people to walk into the show, look around, and go ‘WOAH.’” She longs to disrupt adult life’s debilitating monotony by reminding her viewers, “Revel in nature! Become intimate with the frog, the dog, the owl, the snake, the wildcat, the octopus, the weird bird: connect with their world, their needs, their rights, their feelings. They have so many feelings. Don’t say they’re cute, see that they are complex and have dignity, which we humans need to respect.” The revolution enacted by Scott’s paintings reasserts the value of art that exhibits technical mastery paired with breathtaking beauty. Scott truly believes radical joy and radical beauty will change the planet. “A rainforest still standing is quite beautiful,” she beamed.
Existing literature on Scott’s career harps upon the novelty of her finger painting method while neglecting the technical talent this medium necessitates. Finger painting requires collaboration with the materials, and Scott balances her influence with a responsiveness to the paint’s whims. She works with what resonates, establishing a metaphysical dialogue between herself, the canvas, the paint, and the subject. “I love animals so much that I can’t paint them at an analytic remove—the distance of a paintbrush—instead, I pet these magnificent creatures into existence with my hands, my fingers.”
The Big Wonderful affords viewers an opportunity to eavesdrop into the most exciting portions of this exchange. Its collected works welcome a period that builds upon Scott’s already established golden age. Their exciting evolution expands her artistic aura towards a new, more complex hue, perhaps in the indescribable shades of the blue sagebrush as it’s kissed by the New Mexico sun. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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