TO TAKE IN all of the Baltimore Museum of Art's "Joyce J. Scott Kickin' It With the Old Masters," a multifaceted--and all too rare--celebration of a living local artist that includes a retrospective exhibition, a site-specific installation, two nights of performance, a family activity center and a rambling path through the museum that compares Scott's work to the permanent collection, you need a map (not to mention a ticket for the live show). Fortunately, the BMA is more than happy to provide both.

You'll also need a willing suspension of something--not of disbelief but of the traditional solemnity one usually reserves for stuff that finds its way onto the walls of hallowed institutions like this.

First of all, much of Scott's work isn't even on the wall. It hangs from the ceiling, lurks in corners and alcoves, cascades from over the top of an arched doorway and sits outside in the middle of the museum's interior garden court, lit up like a leftover Christmas tree. And much of it--nearly all of it, really, in addition to some fiber art, glass and prints--is made up of beads.

That's right, beads. The kind of beads you may have made jewelry from in summer camp. The kind of beads you see strung and sewn into tchotchkes at craft shows or sorted by color in the bins of hobby shops.

At first it comes across as accessible, friendly, folksy and democratic, maybe even a tad tame and innocuous. But then you notice something. One beaded figure of a black man, looking like a life-size doll sculpted out of caviar, hangs by his neck from the ceiling of the grand foyer just inside the museum's old, original entrance (reopened for this show for the first time in 15 years). Part of Scott's installation "Hate Crimes Head Injuries," the figure is suspended amid a shower of metal chains that call to mind the one used to drag James Byrd Jr. to his 1998 death at the back of a pickup truck in Jasper, Tex. Below it, as if trying to make sense of the senseless, sits Rodin's "Thinker."

Get used to the jarring impact, because collisions like this--between the silly and the serious, between craft and fine art, between what looks like fun on the surface and what smarts like hell on the inside--are commonplace in Scott's art, which takes one part inspiration from African American folk art (her mother is acclaimed quiltmaker Elizabeth Talford Scott) and one part from polemics (a 1970 art education graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Scott came of age during the days when activism and art were interchangeable).

What does that mean? That means you'll find such pieces as "Lynching Necklace," "Nuclear Nanny," "Rodney King's Head Squashed Like a Watermelon," "Dying Cambodian Child," "Mulatto in South Africa" and two sculptures dealing with interracial relationships whose titles might euphemistically be translated as "Cuddly Black [Penis]." Printed advisories appear throughout the show to warn those with delicate sensibilities.

On one level, the show is about stereotypes--not the use of them, which Scott has no problem with, but the abuse of them in oppression. But if you take the impression that Scott fits any stereotype herself, particularly the one of the angry black revolutionary, you would be wrong, at least in part. Not about the "revolutionary." Scott still does believe (quaintly enough) that art can change the world. But "angry" doesn't fit here. Much of the work is very funny, due as much to the fact that it's made of beads as to Scott's irrepressible humor. That's how, according to curator George Ciscle, it seduces the viewer into listening to its difficult messages, messages centered around the themes of racism, gender roles, violence . . . and memory.

For memory, Ciscle says, is what the whole show is about. It's that idea--that a physical object can be a repository for something intangible, for a spirit or force--that pervades "Kickin' It." Evoking minkisi (totemistic figures from the Congo) and voodoo dolls, Scott's bodies are often literally containers for found--or in her words "gathered"--objects: syringes, plastic baby dolls, bones, etc. What these talismans remind us of is the bad (and just as often the good) inside us, the ability to recognize and then to fix what's broken. It's that double-edged power of the sword of art to injure and to uplift that Scott finds so thrilling.

"I'm one for looking at all art," she says, "even Nazi art. Art makes us look at one thing: ourselves. And that's pretty much it in a nutshell."

For harvesting this savory nut (Scott herself is prone to describe her temperament as "maniacal"), kudos are owed to new BMA director Doreen Bolger and the Maryland Institute, College of Art, her partner in this unique, joint exhibition. Bolger, who took over the museum in 1998, is said to be seriously committed not only to collaboration but to the Baltimore art community (as evidenced by "The Triumph of French Painting," opening in March in cooperation with the Walters Art Gallery, and by an upcoming partnership with the Contemporary Museum).

If "Kickin' It," the first show planned entirely under Bolger's young regime, is any indication of the lively direction she intends to take her museum, it bodes well for the city.

JOYCE J. SCOTT KICKIN' IT WITH THE OLD MASTERS -- Through May 21 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st Streets, Baltimore. 410/396-7100. Web site: Open 11 to 5 Wednesdays through Fridays; first Thursday of every month until 9; Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. $6, seniors and students $4, 18 and under free. Free on Thursdays.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

Sunday and Thursday at 2 -- Gallery talk.

Thursday from 5 to 9 -- Freestyle evening program: "Great Scott!"

Feb. 6 at 3 -- Panel discussion: "Acting Up and Out: Artistry in the Life of Joyce J. Scott."

Feb. 13 from 1:30 to 4 -- Black History Month Family Day, featuring tours, storytelling, music and a bead workshop.

Feb. 20 at 2 -- Lecture: "Activist Art and Freedom of Expression."

Feb. 27 at 2 -- Tour and workshop: "Feast, Famine and the Female Form."

March 2 at 2 -- Lecture: "Thunder Thighs and Body Image."

March 2 from 5 to 9 -- Freestyle evening program: "Dynamic Divas."

March 11 from 1 to 3 -- "Honor the Girl Scouts: Women of Achievement": In this family program open to ages 6 and up, learn how Scott exposes stereotypes, then join Girl Scouts in making sculptures.

March 12 from noon to 1:30 and from 3 to 4:30 -- Family tours of exhibition, open to all ages.

March 17 and 18 at 8 -- Performance by Joyce J. Scott: "Virtual Reality." $15. For tickets, call 410/396-6001.

March 26 at 2 -- Lecture: "Confronting Violence."

April 4 from 10 to noon -- Senior day. Reservations required.

April 6 at 2 -- Gallery talk.

April 6 from 5 to 9 -- Freestyle evening program: "Only in Baltimore!"

April 9 at 2 -- Lecture: "Thunder Thighs and Body Image."

April 30 at 2 -- Sketching tour.

May 4 from 5 to 9 -- Freestyle evening program: "Fifteen Minutes of Fame!"

May 13 at 2 -- Lecture: "Outspoken!"

May 20 from 2 to 4 -- Family tour, presentation and doll-making workshop by members of Charm City Dolls.

For information on adult programs, call 410/396-6314. For information on family programs (Feb. 13, March 11, 12 and May 20), call 410/396-6320. All events are free with museum admission, unless otherwise noted.

CAPTION: Joyce Scott's "Nuclear Nanny" (1983-1984), part of her "Holocaust Series," deals with oppression of domestic workers.