Scott Covert’s fascinating canvases span decades and continents. From a distance, they may bear a passing resemblance to Jasper Johns’ use of words, but on closer inspection, the variety of fonts and the familiar names accompanied by dates reveal their source material as the etched and embossed markers of the deceased. Covert’s mode of operation began in the mid-eighties when he forgot his camera on a visit to the Detroit cemetery where the grave of Florence Chapman, one of the Supremes, is located. By placing the canvas of his paintings on a tombstone, then rubbing the surface with chalk, oil stick, or charcoal, Covert taps into the Victorian-era craft of frottage and transforms it into an art that transcends time and layers vast distances.
While the tradition of gravestone rubbings is a familiar one from elementary school field trips to colonial-era cemeteries and places like St. Martin- in-the-Fields Church in London (where you can buy metallic-colored wax and paper to make your own), Hollywood brings its own history of tragic stars and starlets. The artist’s interest also calls to mind Evelyn Waugh’s farce of the funeral business, “The Loved One.” Covert’s “Small Wizard of Oz #2” indeed reunites the stars of the MGM musical with L. Frank Baum, the original story’s author.
Unlike studio-based painters, Covert functions more like a documentary photographer, fixing his images on location, then subtly adjusting the colors and composition back in his studio. Rich colors are scumbled into the surface, obscuring some names while drawing the eye to others. Covert may start a canvas with a theme or idea, but the process itself is organic and serendipitous; his paintings progress with a life of their own. A coveted name may not find its way to the intended canvas, like a plaque just out of reach on a mausoleum wall. Nomadic by nature, Covert’s canvases have traveled from Texas to New York to Paris, taking up to twelve years to gather together their quorum of cultural icons from comedy (Lenny Bruce) to tragedy (JonBenét Ramsey). While some associations may not make sense at first glance, they mostly reference the odd collisions of popular culture, with the occasional personal friend of the artist thrown into the mix. Be they signs of the personal or public, the names connote associations from the ridiculous (five of the six Three Stooges) to the sublime (John Coltrane).
Covert’s temporal practice has evolved over the years, with his more recent canvases featuring multiple iterations of a name (various dead Nancys), or a single name (Houdini) or epitaph (At Rest With God) repeated over the surface. Some of Covert’s canvases evoke America’s troubled past, reminding us of the students killed at Kent State, Malcolm X, and the Rosenbergs. Another canvas offers us hope: by pairing the grave marker for the Negro slave Dred Scott--whose unsuccessful case for freedom was heard before the Supreme Court--with a bumper sticker for Obama, Covert shows us how far we’ve come. Like the gravestone that reminds us, “Non Omnis Moriar,” Covert’s departed, like his richly layered canvases, will never completely leave us.