47 Scott Northrup


Born Dearborn, MI, 1969 / BFA, College for Creative Studies; MA (Media Studies), New School University, New York / Lives in Detroit

Scott Northrup’s recent temporary installation Hämeenkyrö, Mon Amour (2015) was comprised of text projected onto the landscape near the town of Hämeenkyrö, Finland, at sundown. For about thirty minutes, excerpts of scripted dialogue from Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour and several movies by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, as well as Northrup’s own writing, crawled across the vast, darkening plain in what the artist refers to as a “love letter” to the beautiful, welcoming place he’d come to know after a month-long residency there. If the scale of Hämeenkyrö, Mon Amour is notably ambitious, its sense of near-boundlessness is fitting for a conceptual artist whose work will be confined to no medium. And in its public display of intimacy, its deep roots in both personal experience and popular culture, and its tightrope dance between immateriality and physicality, it is classic Northrup, scaled up.

Other works that Northrup produced during the residency — which was for English-speaking poets, writers and text-based artists — are more modest in size but no less beguiling. Consider, for example, Alone (2015), a book of poems assembled from the text of an American war novel that Northrup found at a Finnish recycling center and later cut up. (He’d brought with him only his smartphone and laptop, determined to work, as he so often does, with whatever materials serendipity sends his way.) In these poems, Northrup is revealed to be both a masterful miner and maker of texts, as well as a pithy and powerful storyteller. But as with his many earlier text-based works, including the 2008 cross-stitch piece A Father’s Love (greeting card), this is accomplished visual art, too. Note, in the poem beginning “he had been chill,” how the negative space beneath the words “then he remembered” evokes the immensity and weight of memory, how the obsessive repetition of the word “him” beats a syncopated, insistently sexual tattoo, and how the last two long spaces before and after the final “him,” one vertical and the next horizontal, represent a release that is both carnal and formal, fluidly leading the eye off one page and toward the next.

Alone, along with other recently produced zines like MEN and I Think We’re Alone Now (both 2015), is replete with references to male desire for men. While Northrup’s work has for years employed a queer or camp sensibility that accounts for much of its playfulness, drama, and bite (see, for instance, the Grey Gardens Board Game, 2005), it has only recently become more overtly homoerotic. Nowhere is this emergent tendency more evocatively and sensitively explored than in two sculptural/video works from 2015, Where the Boys Are and Be (with) Him, each including found footage from Hollywood movies that has been recut, looped, and recontextualized to emphasize male sexuality and desire. Northrup, who went to Catholic school for 12 years and was an altar boy for eight, avows to certain “devotional” impulses, and he considers the former work, an assemblage of nine closed-circuit TV monitors, to be a kind of altar to romantic male longing. The latter, a “Buddhist shrine,” is a shelving unit stocked with both monitors and talismanic objects that evoke the transition from boyhood to manhood, as well as the complex vacillation between identification and objectification that is part and parcel of budding gay sexuality.

Northrup attests to an increased interest, in recent years, in creating  work that is rooted in “the performance of the self,” but no matter how specifically personal his works are at their inception, or how “impulsively” he creates, his universe is a fundamentally expansive and inclusive one. A viewer does not need to know, for instance, that the 2015 collage We See Each Other was inspired by the end of a relationship to be absorbed by its mystery and formal elegance. “I think very emotionally,” he says, and by dwelling in a space where secrets are made public, his work has wide-ranging reverberations.

2013’s Recurring Nightmare, a collection of 30 small, variously deformed plaster busts of Jackie Kennedy, was made in response to a traumatic event in his childhood, a violent assault on his young mother. He hesitated to show it publicly because “it felt too private,” but this disturbing, quietly monumental work stands on its own as a nonetheless profound and humane vision of universal deformity. It magnanimously affirms — as does so much of Northrup’s evolving oeuvre, with its remarkable variety and dazzling multimedia fluency — that famous dictum of Kant’s, that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Matthew Piper, March 2016

Copyright Essay’d 2016