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Seeing the pattern

Long dismissed as frivolous, the Pattern and Decoration movement gets a serious new look from the art world.

September 21, 2003|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

"It gets awfully tiresome to go to art galleries and find yourself being lectured at," Amy Goldin wrote in a 1976 review for Art in America magazine. The art critic was writing about the first New York solo show of her former student Kim MacConnel -- but it wasn't MacConnel's work she was complaining about. It was the predominance of Minimal and Conceptual art, its austerity and seriousness.

MacConnel too chafed at the "stranglehold" of these styles in the late '60s and early '70s. He and his like-minded peers were put off by all the rules, bored especially by Minimalism's aloof and literal forms, left cold by its heady sobriety and machine aesthetic. For inspiration, they turned toward the unconventional -- to non-Western art and ornamentation, to the worlds of craft and traditional women's work, toward accessible art that embraced joy, color, life.

The paintings that MacConnel showed in that New York exhibition were brushed on freely hanging bedsheets that had been torn into strips and sewn back together. Their vibrantly colored designs were copied from Chinese pattern books. Far from the systematic dryness of Minimalism, the paintings were spirited, irreverent, a bit crude and very much alive.

"What a pleasure," Goldin exclaimed in her review, "to have something happening, and that something so sweet-tempered!"

When MacConnel first brought those works to New York, not everyone greeted them as warmly as Goldin did. "People would say, 'You're never going to get a show, because it's not serious,' " MacConnel recalls. "How do you be serious? Well, solemn colors. These were too bright. I couldn't believe people would actually say things like that. It's absurd."

MacConnel and his fellow travelers -- Robert Kushner, Joyce Kozloff, Valerie Jaudon, Robert Zakanitch, Miriam Schapiro and others -- went on to achieve decades of acclaim for their work. The movement they launched, Pattern and Decoration -- P&D for short -- fizzled out by the early '80s and has been given only nominal attention from art historians. The early resistance MacConnel encountered lingers.

"Pattern and Decoration relates to so much that is going on today, but it hasn't been looked at," says independent curator and writer Michael Duncan. "It remains a great taboo.

"Whenever you use the D-word [decoration], people break into a cold sweat. It's a radical movement that relates to '60s notions of breaking away from the sanctity of high art. These artists wanted to explore how the decorative intersects with our lives. It's incredibly celebratory. The underlying premise of the movement is that ornamentation is an affirmation of life. It's getting back to an instinct that high Modernism tried to suppress or weed out of us for some puritanical reason."

Now, thanks to Duncan, a champion of under-recognized artists and movements, a broad-ranging introduction to P&D can be had in a single trip to Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. The centerpiece of Duncan's efforts is "Parrot Talk: A Retrospective of Works by Kim MacConnel," at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. With paintings, sculpture, rugs, painted furniture and collages spanning 30 years, the show is the most comprehensive for the Encinitas-based artist.

Duncan organized two additional shows at Bergamot Station galleries to give MacConnel's work context. "NYPD: New York Pattern and Decoration," at Shoshana Wayne, is not a survey, Duncan is quick to explain, but a glimpse at the movement through work by 16 of its core members who lived or showed in New York, as well as a few younger artists, like Polly Apfelbaum, whose work resonates with the concerns of Pattern and Decoration's first generation.

At Rosamund Felsen, Duncan presents "LAPD: Los Angeles Pattern & Decoration," joining work by 31 Southern California artists, from 1966 to the present.

"The movement has a lot of nooks and crannies, and the concepts of P&D were manifested in a lot of different ways," Duncan says. "Once you start looking for pattern, it's everywhere. I think this show will surprise people." Among the artists represented: Maura Bendett, Karl Benjamin, Dinh Q. Le, Ed Moses, Grant Mudford, Adrian Saxe and Tom Wudl.

Several more galleries are holding solo shows of artists variably bound to the Pattern and Decoration approach. The exuberant ceramic sculptures of Betty Woodman can be seen at Frank Lloyd. Patricia Faure is showing new paintings of dogs by Robert Zakanitch, and at Richard Heller, abstract paintings and sculpture by Chicago-based Michelle Grabner partner with a drawing installation by Belgian artist Carla Arocha.

Between all the different shows and the "Parrot Talk" catalog, Duncan hopes not only to focus attention on the Pattern and Decoration movement but to clear lingering misconceptions about it -- that it emerged in New York, for one, and that the work is primarily about surface issues, for another.


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