“Truth Is What You Thought When You Were 10”: How Painter Iris Scott Transmits Art through Her Fingertips

“Truth Is What You Thought When You Were 10”: How Painter Iris Scott Transmits Art through Her Fingertips

The work of painter Iris Scott vibrates with energy. Large-scale, ultra-pigmented and created through a unique finger painting technique, her pieces fuse natural and dream worlds into a striking exploration of curiosity and form.

Scott began her career as a finger painter while living in Tawain in 2009. As the story goes, she was finishing a painting when she ran out of clean brushes. Instead of procuring another utensil, she made an instinctual decision to use her fingers. The sensation sparked a revelation.

“I just got a few strokes into that finger painting, and I realized, ‘That’s very interesting. I wonder if I should dedicate myself to just this,’” said Scott in an interview with ALL ARTS. “And then a little voice said, ‘You should definitely do that.’”

Iris Scott in the studio with her cat. Photo: Erik Nuenighoff.

A decade later, Scott’s work is the focus of new solo exhibition, “Ritual in Pairing,” now on view at the Filo Sofi Arts gallery in Chelsea. Featuring several original works curated under an environmental theme, the show susses out the relationship between humankind and the natural world through notions of instinct, desire and performative identity.

The colors (prismatic) and subject matter (mostly animals) of Scott’s work in her solo exhibition exude a bright luminescence somewhat reminiscent of fuzzy velvet paint-by-number kits that have been brought to life as vivid, mythological scenes. Other pieces, such as her large-scale paintings of women, call to mind the gilded portraits of Gustav Klimt.

The exhibition also encompasses two live performance elements. The first, scheduled for May 17, will feature Scott on stilts and in an exaggerated full-length gown, fashioned from her finger paintings. The second, occurring on May 30 (the exhibition’s closing day), will include a debut performance from Desi drag queen MangHoe Lassi.

We spoke to Scott ahead of her performance about how environmentalism informs her art, how she approaches painting and how rebirth factors into her work.

Your show has a very environmental theme. Can you elaborate a little bit on that and how it connects to your performance on May 17?

So I’m all about plants and animals — even on Instagram I tend to just follow plants and animals.

It’s so great. When I’m scrolling through Instagram, and I see a tiger being a tiger, you know, it gives me slight heart palpitations. I’m just so in love and infatuated with animals and plants, and I think they’re so divine and just so important. And then I go to art fairs and I’m like, “Where are the plants and animals? Why is that not being depicted more?” And I just think that contemporary art has gotten so divorced from just disappearing into the beauty of the natural world for beauty’s sake — just for the “wow” factor of it all, the creativity of DNA itself or what it has made. I just want to focus on that as much as possible.

"Tiger Fire" by Iris Scott. Photo courtesy: Filo Sofi Arts.
“Tiger Fire” by Iris Scott. Photo courtesy: Filo Sofi Arts.

Your own practice of finger painting is very tactile and literally in touch with the art that you’re creating.

As a finger painting artist, I wear gloves and I use very thick oils. I kind of carve the paint into place sort of like how a person working with clay or butter would be really hands on, sculpting with it. And so I’m not at a distance at the end of a long brush when I’m painting — I’m right up in it. And in many ways there are certain strokes and certain designs that are just naturally an effect of finger painting that I just run with because that’s what finger painting wants to do — that’s what it’s good at. Finger painting is not good at painting fine details like eyelashes and chest hair. It’s good at these big thick, juicy blocks of color and dots and particles and grooves. And so that’s where I go. It’s sort of growing itself.

The painting?

Yeah, it’s kind of directing the style it wants to be. I’m not really forcing it.

When you approach a painting, do you go in with some sort of game plan?

Oh, yeah. Especially as the paintings get bigger, I have to be really thoughtful about planning it out. Otherwise, I can get in a lot of trouble and just be like on the studio floor whimpering and feeling very sorry for myself because I’ve lost a whole day that I’m going to have to scrape off.

But I’ve spent the last 10 years kind of winging it on one little canvas and letting actions fly and learning a lot. And now I’m able to sort of take my tool box of tricks and tools of the last decade and really apply them in a planned out way.

“Pursuing Pigeon in Paint,” by Iris Scott.

The performance element of the exhibition is supposed to be a kind of rebirth and a transition. And I was wondering, what exactly is the transition?

It takes place in spring, so we’ve got a seasonal change, and we also have that kind of rebirth idea of like, “Oh, architecturally all these beautiful things could come back into the city, like the plants and the trees.” But from a sort of self-portrait level, honestly, I had so many tarot card readings telling me about a year ago that I needed to shake things up and get out of my comfort zone in order to kind of burst myself into something new. So I committed to this performance, not knowing what the heck I was going to do, and then so many magical things just sort of happened. And after enough practice on the stilts, I finally felt comfortable. And so I feel rejuvenated, whereas like a year ago, I was just too comfortable. Things had gotten too easy, too predictable. I knew how to paint. I knew they would sell. And it was like like, “Who am I?” You know? “Where’s that part of me that I had when I was little, where I was like, OK, I’m going to do this now!”

So that’s basically the rebirth of branching out into sculpture and wearable art and performance, just for the sake of it. Just to shake things up so you don’t die of boredom.

Iris Scott with paintings from “Ritual in Pairing.” Photo: Erik Nuenighoff.

How did the stilts come into play?

Well, it’s funny you should ask. I’m 5′ 4”, and I feel like I’m always looking up at people. And every time I’ve seen processions or even protests where someone is on stilts, I’ve had that knowing your chest, your heart, where you’re like, “I feel like I’m supposed to be up there.”

And also, frankly, I have just been painting these extra tall beings lately. And I don’t know why exactly, but when I go to design them, they always are really long, and I think it has something to do with, perhaps, in the future people are taller. Maybe I’m getting a little imagery sent back to me from the future about this. Because I tend to believe in pretty “woo” things about the illusion of time and that you can access imagery from the future in meditation.

And how does instinct and imagination influence your work process?

Ever since I stopped following a bunch of people and artists on Instagram and sort of cleaned up my distractions, I have been able to remember more and more clearly who I really am. And who I really am is like when I was 10 to 12, when your imagination is so powerful. And I even found a drawing from when I was 10, and recreated it at six by eight feet for the show. And it’s called “Exodus of Pisces.”

And it just had so much power in it. It was so out there. So I think that by closing your eyes and trying to remember what you loved when you were little, you are much more in touch with reality because you’re not as influenced by these insane adult filters about what is in fashion and what is cool and what is important and what is serious. Like serious art is so boring, you know. And I don’t think it’s particularly good for society because it doesn’t really make us feel like we can do anything.

Iris Scott with childhood drawing of “Exodus of Pisces,” with large-scale version of the new version in the background. Photo: Erik Nuenighoff.

Is this show kind of your way of doing something?

Yeah. I feel like this show is kind of a metaphor for giving other people permission to use their big adult brains to act out what they were in love with as children and ignore what adults say. Because really, the system actually rewards you for it, ironically. Like this show, it’s gotten so much fantastic press and an unexpected warm hug from the art world that I did not see coming at all. But in meditation, I would just hear, “Power through, power through. Don’t worry because you are more in line with truth. So just keep going.” And I was like, what’s truth? And it was like: Truth is what you thought when you were 10.

Who are your inspirations?

I’m obsessed with Gustav Klimt. I had a calendar of Klimt given to me by my dad when I was 12. And I can’t get enough of that artist. I just think that that artist was the most advanced designer of all time. Just wow.

I love the work of living artist Walton Ford. And I think Henri Rousseau is just amazing.

But what always bothers me is just how it’s always all these male names in the museums. I’m so tired of that. So, my number one goal before I die is just to infect all the museums with my paintings so that little girls can answer that question with a female name.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Top Image: Iris Scott with paintings included in the exhibition, "Ritual in Pairing." Photo: Erik Nuenighoff.