Sometimes, Dead Is Better: Scott Covert

To character someone is to inscribe them; this is the simple and elegant task of a tombstone. Scott Covert, grave-rubber extraordinaire, has, over the course of this wonderful life of his, become distinguished as a mark maker of the dearly departed. His career is one crafted in the practice, or process, rather, of chasing and collecting famed epithets so as to see what’s contained or concealed within a name, and this quite literally, in the crafting of drawings, paintings, and photographs taken of—and, notably, on—the inscriptions posed upon the graves of our more distinguished dead: characters, as he likes to call them, whose monumental names, and sometimes epitaphs, have served as the artist’s singular idée fixe since the mid-1980s. Covert’s chosen technique, frottage, implies not only an intimacy forged with these icons in the act of visitation, or as a contact sport of sorts, but also serves to test a surface to see what “rubs off”—as if lifting an image, or tracing icons, might exhume their buried meaning. Covert, in other words, is raising death’s markers to question the iconographic, but not without admonition: what goes into the grave, per the wise advice of the old man in Pet Sematary, is not the same thing that comes back up. Sometimes, dead is better.

That is, sometimes, dead is more distinguished, as in discernible, or characteristic; alas, it comes up against representation. Covert’s into crash-landing at the grave so as to situate himself in proximity with the deadest ends of famed lives, their final framing; his commitment to the site signaling by extension an instinct for arrivals and, as such, apparitions. Deadness in all its cultured appearances, as final destination, glamour wound, Skeleton Dance, or even as situated in the scant semantics of the “sematary,” inscribed into characters that “come back different” (which is one way of thinking about appropriation), is a coveted posture that finds formal alignment with the still life, the duplicate, or mirror image. That his process literalizes what it probes—what a surface can convey; what it gives up when rubbed, genie-style—is the special magic of the work.

Think Munchkin Coroner, who must aver the Witch is really dead, as examined: she has been inspected, or at least glanced at. The Wicked Witch of the East is reduced to the sum of her parts, the striped socks and sick slippers, then lifted of her dead feet to wind up as an icon of Dorothy’s journey home. Like so, Covert encroaches on death’s limits, and by extension those of painting, not so much to peer into the freaky abyss of life’s elusive meaning, as marked by our mortal bounds, but to check out, and sort of disturb, the form and function of death’s decor for what it indexes about (the) living. Apropos one of his subjects, Helen Gurley Brown, of notably glam editorial fame, Covert once remarked: “Helen Gurley Brown is in the northwest corner of Arkansas—can you imagine? The Cosmopolitan girl went back home.” This cements the idea of “home,” signifying our steady click-clack to the grave (and also validates my feeling that MGM’s decision to send Dorothy back to Kansas was equal to a death sentence).

More to the point, tapping into the notion of “home” also brings in the psychic significance of the journey, Covert’s relentless motion: the whole driving force and tactility of his process. Home is the car, the studio. Ergo, home is where the art is, as distinctively marked by one’s final resting spot. Not only his career then, but life as such that has been shaped in search of lost plots, the mind discolit with Proustian momentum, in the drive to arrive somewhere—say, Detroit, where he’d landed his first frottage of the “dead Supreme,” Florence Ballard, in 1985. And all in order to glance at and transfer a surface, along with all its psychosocial and emotional meaning into his monumental paintings. Some pieces are about retrieving something of an individual, like a drawing made of the epitaph on poet Bob Flanagan’s grave in Los Angeles, inscribed “Fun to Be Dead,” very apropos to the ethos; other works are formed of associative networks, collections of kindred spirits, like famous suicides, jazz singers, or, proving my point, everyone dead in the main cast of The Wizard of Oz. In Covert’s rescue operation, no one ends up in blah Kansas; they are reunited in the painting’s promise of eternal life. Oz 4ever.

The artist, per his own admission, doesn’t do cenotaphs. Which is to say, the works are less concerned with the distant thing of fandom, per se, than what is made immediately present and possible in the resuscitation of icons on paper, or canvas. Covert’s intent on bringing back process-based painting, and so deep into strategies that make an image pop—like the name Rene Ricard, especially when conjured seventeen(-ish) times in a single canvas, like Beetlejuice. Ricard, for the record, is buried in New Bedford, New York, and Covert has certainly been there; the name anchors a painting titled Seventeen Rene Ricards (I Think) and Three Dondis (2019). In going to the lengths of finding these graves, as if searching for proof that the coveted starlet, celebrity icon, or presidential pet (R.I.P., Checkers Nixon) wasn’t just an MGM reel, but really real, he is always arriving somewhere concrete—in the attention paid to the site, the formal idea in its revisitation, as in a masterful understanding of abstraction as still tethered to mark-making: the formal simplicity and elegance of a line. Perhaps it serves a purpose to declare painting not only merely, but most sincerely dead, and so categorically associated with the famed elite that make up Covert’s cast. These paintings are then on equal ground to the figures they contain, character studies of the distinguished few that have formed our cultural consciousness, and of painting itself as a medium—its gravitas, let’s say.

Scott Covert (b. 1954, Edison, New Jersey) lives in New York and works internationally. Solo exhibitions include presentations at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale (2022–23); F Gallery, Houston (2020); FIERMAN and Situations Gallery, New York (2017); Plan B Gallery, Forest Park (2006); and Ricky Clifton Gallery, New York (1984). Covert has participated in group exhibitions at Gordon Robichaux, New York (2022); South Etna Montauk Foundation, Montauk (2020); 56 Henry, New York (2019); the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2018); Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery, New York (1984); Patrick Fox Gallery, New York (1984); and Keith Haring’s Found Objects exhibition at Club 57, New York (1979). Covert is currently presenting a solo show at Studio Voltaire, London.
Sabrina Tarasoff is a Finnish writer and critic based in Paris. She is a contributing editor at Mousse and writes regularly for Artforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly. She is currently working on a book of essays, Fantasyworld, that dwells on the mysterious movement between popular culture, poetry, and contemporary art, with a particularly keen eye on the nebulous “poet gang” that formed around the Wednesday Night Poetry series at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California, between 1976 and 1986. She is also editing an anthology of Bob Flanagan’s collected writings to be published in the spring of 2023.

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