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MacConnel show is a movement reborn

September 19, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

A local critic once organized an exhibition to make the argument that Pattern and Decoration art -- a movement that flourished in the 1970s and then flamed out -- was significant because of a simple difference between artists and everybody else. Most people have really bad taste, went the show's insulting critical claim, while artists are avatars of style. Artists could transform the humdrum mediocrity of the everyday into the aesthetically smashing, if only drab civilians would let them.

This design-on-a-dime philosophy might work on HGTV, where tired middle-class domiciles get instant makeovers by confident pros, but it's arrogant foolishness for the art gallery and museum to espouse. With friends like that, enemies are redundant. Needless to say, the Pattern and Decoration survey sank into the annals of obscurity.

Still, its viewpoint is not untypical of the nonsense regularly spoken in the vicinity of Pattern and Decoration art (or P&D, for short). Even champions of P&D can seem flummoxed. The puritan antipathy toward regarding decoration as anything but morally frivolous and intellectually shallow is deeply embedded in American culture.

Happily, though, the norm is now being bucked at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, where an absorbing 30-year survey of work by one of the most gifted founders of the P&D movement opened this week. "Parrot Talk: A Retrospective of Works by Kim MacConnel" is refreshing, challenging and succinct. In 39 paintings, a group of drawings and some painted furniture, the playful show offers more substance to revel in than many shows twice its size.

For one thing, MacConnel's art demonstrates that the type of hierarchy that puts artists "up here" and regular people "down there" is fundamentally at odds with everything P&D stands for. MacConnel's paintings borrow cultural imagery from innumerable societies around the world, from Asia to Africa, but there's nothing colonial about it. Colonialism is about the powerful subjugating the weak and foreign; MacConnel's art is about the humanizing awe and delight that arises from worldly estrangement.

Call it an aesthetic of radical egalitarianism.

The first painting, "Pattern Blu," dates from 1972. Stripes, checks, stars, lima beans, ripples and other patterned motifs occupy irregular, interlocking shapes on a large piece of loosely hanging fabric. The colors are saturated, the unstretched canvas hanging like a banner.

For all its visual aggressiveness, though, the painting feels formally unresolved. But think of the date. By 1972, Minimal and Conceptual art had captured the avant-garde.

Traditional art objects were suspect. Chromophobia, a fear of the unruliness of color and its resistance to language, was just beginning to rear its head. The political chaos of Vietnam was unfolding, Watergate loomed, and demands for new forms of social realist art were reawakening from a 30-year slumber. Yes, MacConnel had unhinged his painting from its wooden stretcher bars so that it could fly free, but a painting by another name is still a painting, which tied it to the Establishment.

"Pattern Blu" reads like a somewhat clumsy but nonetheless concentrated assault on these and other fences that were being rapidly erected around art. Its bright legacy in Pop painting rejects the cultural isolationism of Minimal and Conceptual art. Pleasure trumps pontificating. Matisse seems to matter here more than Duchamp does. Radicalism is understood as a vigorous defense of freedom, not the moralizing self-righteousness of the claque.

MacConnel was newly graduated from UC San Diego (today he teaches there), where he and fellow student and P&D innovator Robert Kushner had come under the influence of visiting professor and critic Amy Goldin. The best-kept secret of postwar American art criticism -- she died young, at 52, in 1978 -- Goldin was the brilliant theoretician of P&D; the Santa Monica Museum show helpfully includes an homage to her.

Within three years, MacConnel was making his signature work: vertical strips of plain or machine-printed fabric, each painted over in vivid patterns of abstract shapes or figurative motifs, sewn or glued together as large hangings push-pinned to the wall. Among them are some breathtaking paintings, among the best of the decade -- paintings whose casual sophistication remains fresh today.

The format is deceptively simple (as most great compositional schemes are). Each vertical strip functions in two ways. It's an independent field of imagery -- tumbling fans, woven plaids, floral motifs, commercial products, scientific symbols, etc. And it's simultaneously a frame or border for the field next to it. Together, their lively visual rhythms establish the distinct syncopation of the painting.

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