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Objet d'art 

In praise of decoration

Wednesday, Feb 11 1998
In 1912, Pablo Picasso took a piece of oilcloth printed like chair caning and glued it into one of his paintings. In so doing, he not only helped invent a new technique - collage - he also helped open the floodgate on all the unconventional materials and practices that artists have used ever since. The Readymades of Marcel Duchamp, the welded steel of Modernist sculptors, the assembled junk of California funk artists, the Minimalists' industrially manufactured objects, the Feminists' domestic handicrafts - each new material violated accepted ideas of what art could be. Everything other than oil paint, marble and bronze was welcome for the very reason that it did not "belong" in an art gallery. Whether the stratagem was used to make visible neglected points of view, or simply to give polite culture a poke in the eye, it soon became the avant-garde's stock-in-trade.

By now that fact is taken so much for granted that one may wonder what a show like "Homemade Champagne" can bring to the idea. As it turns out, it can bring a lot. Almost all the artists in this quirky exhibition work with materials that have always had to struggle for legitimacy in a fine-arts context. The classic example is ceramics, but the stigma also extends to textiles and fiber arts. Materials like these bear the onus of craft, and more than one artist has embraced them for just that reason. To the iconoclast they represent illegitimacy, degradation and the abject - themes that have equated vanguard art with transgression and identified vanguard artists as social outsiders. One can't help but see the curious knit sculpture of Angela Pasquale in this show, for example, and not think of how similar objects have been used by someone like Mike Kelley. For Kelley, the knit doll reeks of middle-class pathos. Pasquale, on the other hand, treats each member of her menagerie as a nuanced form, full of whimsy, weirdness and subtlety.

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All the art in "Homemade Champagne" has this in common: It uses unconventional techniques without grinding an outsider's ax. Instead, this eclectic set of objects might stand for something even more contrarian: a renewed sense of connoisseurism. Three elegant ewers in porcelain and stoneware by Adrian Saxe are like ambassadors of refined sensibility, discernment and cultivation - values more likely to get you thrown out of graduate school than exhibited in one. Such terms still bear the brand of an intellectually numb bourgeoisie for whom art is a form of self-congratulation. Saxe is well aware of these prejudices, and the genius of his work is in the way it deflates them - each of his ewers is adorned with silly plastic toys like the kind you'd find in a bubble-gum machine.

Such inversions and reversals are what make "Homemade Champagne" work. Organizer David Pagel belongs to a group of critical voices centered in Southern California that is making fresh claims for values that are practically inadmissible in the discussion of avant-garde art, values like beauty, pleasurability, even the untouchable issue of marketing. His central premise is that these qualities are neither frivolous nor elitist but, in fact, both deeply pragmatic and socially instrumental.

That's ironic because ceramics and textiles, for example, have always had a hard time qualifying as cutting-edge art, in large part because they are practical, utilitarian and functional media. Several works by Jim Isermann suggest that the rift these qualities create between other arts might not be as wide as it seems. The hand-loomed fabric fitted over a large cube in one of his pieces shows off the visual assonance between the homey, checked pattern of the cloth and the high-minimalist geometry of the cube.

But handcrafts are also typically censured for being homespun and less aesthetically sophisticated, as though their more plebeian attributes produce a commensurate lowering of standards. The word craft brings to mind projects from high school wood shop, summer camp or adult-education classes, where adjectives like "naive" and "rustic" are used as a pleasant euphemism for "crappy." By the same token, though, crudeness also becomes the hallmark of integrity, an antidote for the slick but hollow perfection of machine-made goods. Single-handedly, two wall-hung sculptures by John McCracken gleefully confound all these paradigms. The impeccable, reflective surface and high-tech geometry of his abstract forms don't jibe with the fact that each object is singular and made by hand, not by machine.

McCracken restores the spirit of practice, discipline and exactitude to art, not with an eye toward self-realization but toward the audience's experience. The assumption here is that the quality of the object affects the quality of a viewer's relationship with it. Not surprisingly, this exhibition asks for viewers who are willing to split hairs and cultivate the intelligence of the senses. Two abstract ceramic forms by Ken Price not only entice one with glazed surfaces that are simultaneously lustrous and abraded, they also toy with habits of recognition by melting biomorphic abstraction into Saturday-morning cartoons. His pieces ask us to calibrate more finely the ruler of perception and degrees of discrimination, to investigate the complexity of visual pleasure.

There used to be a name for that process; it was called cultivating taste. If it's a practice we have all but lost, "Homemade Champagne" lobbies for a revival. Technical virtuosity serves a purpose in this show because simply by looking good, these artworks enhance any environment. If that sounds like a defense for mere decoration, that's exactly what it is. This exhibition's bold assertion is that decoration is not extraneous, but essential. And if it is stigmatized, it's in part because modern art criticism has simply failed to appreciate its complexities.

A set of wall-hung, disc-shaped sculptures by Polly Apfelbaum exposes the power of patterning and design. Various-size holes perforate each disc to form simple geometric patterns; as a result, it becomes virtually impossible to see the discs as anything other than faces. Apfelbaum taps into the forces of kinship and the almost instinctive sense of comfort we can derive from visual order. Alfred Jensen, on the other hand, uses a similar language of patterning to produce oil paintings that resist this very kind of resolution. The only "conventional" art in the show, Jensen's work is also the oldest, dating back to the '60s, but this obscure painter's color-coded charts and maplike compositions perfectly drive home the linkages between decoration, design and human reason. One painting repeats the cardinal points of the compass on a large checkerboard pattern. A sprinkling of small arrows then creates an evasive visual circuit that stubbornly eludes the grasp of the mind as much as it eludes the grasp of the eye. What an artist like Jensen demonstrates is that art can be challenging, critical and difficult, but still be decorative. Like all the artists in "Homemade Champagne," he also shows how art can elevate technique, satisfy taste, beautify environments and still be art.

HOMEMADE CHAMPAGNE
At the CLAREMONT GRADUATE UNIVERSITY
Peggy Phelps Gallery and East Gallery
251 E. 10th St., Claremont

Through February 14

  • In praise of decoration

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