SAN DIEGO — "Too great an importance has been given to the retinal," Marcel Duchamp told interviewer Pierre Cabanne in 1971. "Since Courbet it's been believed that painting is addressed to the retina--that was everyone's error. Before, painting had other functions: It could be religious, philosophical, moral, but our century is completely retinal. . . . It's absolutely ridiculous. It has to change."
Change it did. In the decade following Duchamp's observation, his belief that art should provoke the brain rather than please the eye came to dominate art.
Central to the key movements of the '70s, Minimalism and Conceptualism, this reductive idea ultimately led art to the point where it was in danger of dematerializing altogether. When the pendulum swings too far in one direction, there's nothing left but for it to hurtle pell-mell the other way--which brings us to Pattern and Decoration, a shamelessly optical school of Postmodernist painting that had a healthy run in the late '70s.
"Modernism was an attempt to refine, define and streamline; Postmodernism is about stepping outside boundaries, allowing other voices in, and recognizing daily life," observes San Diego-based artist Kim MacConnel, a key figure in the Pattern and Decoration school, whose first L.A. exhibition in seven years, "Age of Plastic," opened Saturday at Thomas Solomon's Garage. (A related body of work also goes on view Friday at the Quint Gallery in San Diego.)
"Minimalism, the reigning Modernist style when I was coming of age as an artist, ruled life out--there was no room for it in that work--and I saw Pattern and Decoration, which uses Third World motifs and images from everyday life, as a means of breaking down the hermeticism of the New York school. Unfortunately, that strategy led to my being labeled kitsch and a cultural imperialist," he adds with a laugh.
MacConnel's work has been called kitsch, along with several other less than laudatory things, over the course of his career. Dismissed as "the worst kind of exploitation" by Arts Magazine critic Gretchen Faust, as "solely visual work that offers nothing to sustain the viewers' interest" by Elizabeth Hayt-Atkins in Art News, MacConnel's art has been largely read in terms of its relationship to the decorative arts, which have occupied a debased position in the avant-garde for decades. Picking up on the political subtext in MacConnel's art, however, critic Douglas Blau describes him as "a hawk masquerading as a parrot," which seems closer to the artist's intention; the visual cacophony MacConnel whips up in his work is tethered to a foundation of ideas rigorous enough to have warranted his being included in five Whitney Biennials between 1975-85.
Assaulting the viewer with a riotous melange of color and shape, MacConnel tosses subtlety--the central tenet of "good taste"--out the window (he even went so far as to make a series of flocked paintings). At the heart of all his work is the notion of patterning--simple forms repeated at measured intervals. Favoring harlequin patterns, oversize polka dots and bold stripes, MacConnel points out that "repetition essentially functions as a grid, which is the basis of everything from maps to the printed page." Layered onto these patterns are elements of folk art, Chinese script, funk, space age motifs a la "The Jetsons," tribal fetishes, Pop and, most importantly, the decorative arts (fabric, furniture and rug design, for instance).
MacConnel might be loathe to admit it, but his work is part of a visually lush tradition that's always thrived on the West Coast, and stretches from European masters such as Matisse, to L.A. artists like Sam Francis and Billy Al Bengston.
Meeting with the 47-year-old artist on a Sunday morning in his studio at UC San Diego, where he has been chairman of the art department since last year, one encounters an easygoing man who speaks openly about his life while managing to remain decidedly private. He's not the sort to bare his soul to the press. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, unlaced purple sneakers and no socks, MacConnel is a surfer and he looks the part--he's fit, energetic and tan.
His studio is orderly and clean, despite the fact that the center of the room is dominated by a colorful mound of trash, much of which will be recycled into the body of work currently occupying him; "Age of Plastic" is composed of approximately 100 small clowns fashioned out of debris scavenged on beaches here and abroad. Traveling is central to MacConnel's life, and has been since he was very young.