In the early 1970s, many artists became fed up with the overblown critical rhetoric surrounding post-painterly abstraction, a term coined by über-critic Clement Greenberg (as the title of a show at LACMA) for that work encompassing such non-Pop post–abstract expressionist painting styles as minimalism and Color Field. As the psychological, spiritual, figurative and narrative content was systematically removed from visual art during this period, the arguments in its defense became increasingly grandiloquent and elitist, and it was that, along with the cramped possibilities and ungenerous aesthetics of minimalist abstraction, that begat a reactionary torrent of works wallowing in sensuality, complexity, inclusiveness and humor. A number of these artists coalesced into various regional movements, including Funk Art in San Francisco and the Chicago Imagists. But none was as well-known as Pattern & Decoration, probably because of the misperception that it was an East Coast phenomenon, and therefore more important. Not to mention the fact that it was so, well, decorative. And while Funk Art had clear roots in the ornate visual explosion of psychedelia, and the Chicago Imagists in the outsider art of the insane, P&D’s most obvious historical referent was craft and textile design — disdained by many but hardly unwelcome in museums and collectors’ homes.
Moreover, P&D’s political agenda was ahead of the curve, explicitly taking the visual vocabularies of traditional “women’s work” and “primitive cultures” and positioning them as equivalents to high Modernism, as valid, highly evolved ways of looking at and interacting with the world. On top of that, P&D turned from the competitive introspection of the New York establishment in favor of a playful, socially interactive pluralism that drew as easily from Navajo blankets and Chinese tapestries as it did from last week’s painting trend. This was a clear rebuttal of the dominant view of American painting’s increasingly conceptual abstraction as a kind of aesthetic and spiritual manifest destiny. Which is curious, because although the visual tropes of high Modernism — stripes and biomorphic blobs, for instance — are still very much in play in the work of many contemporary artists mining the mid–20th century for “ideas,” their function has been wholly subsumed by the idea of painting as decoration. This probably wasn’t such a big surprise for the P&D artists. “Minimalism carried no message other than its formula that was clearly self-referential, and ended up being decorative and being used decoratively,” says San Diego–based P&D pioneer Kim MacConnel in the catalog for his Santa Monica Museum retrospective, “Parrot Talk.”
The show, which opens Saturday, is the hub of a piecemeal survey of P&D history and traditions drolly titled “The LAPD Project,” taking place at six separate venues in Bergamot Station and orchestrated by critic and increasingly busy curator Michael Duncan. The five adjunct gallery exhibits include two minisurveys of L.A. and N.Y. artists, reflecting the bicoastal legacy of the movement, housed at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery and Shoshana Wayne Gallery, respectively. The other participating galleries are showing contemporary work by original P&D artists and pieces by younger artists working within the P&D oeuvre. Duncan has done an admirable job representing the actual participants in the movement, but it must have been difficult to decide where to draw the line in terms of influence.
Removed from its historical context and stripped of its most high-profile (if inaccurate) sociopolitical reading — as a feminist art practice — Pattern & Decoration starts to blur at the bounderies. Indeed, in the overall scope of 20th-century visual-art making, it is minimalism that stands out as some kind of glitch. With precedents including Matisse, William Morris, Sonia Delaunay and several abstract expressionists, and later artists like Philip Taaffe, Lari Pittman and Sigmar Polke, it’s hard to make a case for P&D as an underdog — based solely on its visual content, anyway. For better or worse, P&D may reasonably be seen as an essential part of the first wave of postmodernism, and as the door by which the torrent of visual content that had been systematically excised by the Modernist juggernaut re-entered and quickly dominated the art world in the 1980s.
Which is to say, if you go to these shows expecting to see some earthshaking, radical discontinuity from the art you’re used to seeing, you will be disappointed. Artists have always engaged with the world and their audiences. It is only in relation to the dead-end solipsism of late academic modernism that P&D bears any trace of outrageousness. In fact, it is to that very context that P&D is able to pull off the neat trick of simultaneously refuting and embodying the kind of dialectical confrontation that defined Modernism — saying “Fuck you!” with flowers.
Given that, I have to say that Kim MacConnel is a pretty hot painter. The West Coast’s claim to P&D primacy rests on two centers of activity — one being the Feminist Art Program at CalArts led by Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago, the other a cluster of like-minded UC San Diego artists, including MacConnel, who gravitated toward the ideas of visiting professor Amy Goldin. Goldin, who died in 1978 at the age of 52, was emphatic about the essential difference between pattern painting and art painting. Much of the catalog is given over to her essays, and while her position is beautifully argued, I just don’t buy it — Goldin’s insistence on the humility and sensitivity of the pattern artist subtly reinforces the Modernist mythology it supposedly undermines. MacConnel’s paintings have to stand on their own, against any other painting. And they do.
The most immediately dazzling of MacConnel’s works are his trademark pieces composed from strips of bed sheets painted with brightly colored, loosely rendered patterns borrowed from Third World cultures or invented, as well as cartoonish clip-art images of contemporary American life and technology. Amassing several hundred of these strips, MacConnel eventually began sifting them down into sets of five or more wildly varied patterns. He successfully explored this motif until 1983, articulating the combination of a complex and joyous color sensibility with a subtle interrogation of Western colonialism — MacConnel would be the first to concede that the designs he appropriates were already art to begin with — that typifies all his work.
Around this time, MacConnel started looking for new elements to throw into the mix, or different formulas altogether; one of the best pieces in the show is the straight-up painting Charles Ist (1983), which balances the cheeriness of his children’s-book palette with an ominous sense of foreboding. Other experiments were less successful. MacConnel took to incorporating painted picture frames — often within a larger composition — as well as commercially printed tourist post cards, both of which resulted in awkward compositions whose intrusive jumbles of off-kilter rectangles, with their built-in art-historical and global political significance, stray into the realm of the just plain ugly.
I would say that these decisions were missteps if MacConnel hadn’t persisted, pursuing the combination of snapshots and painted frames to an exquisite resolution in work seen last year at Rosamund Felsen, where pieces like Silk Embroidery Factory Worker and Local Labor Al Dafar (both included in “Parrot Talk”) paired large-scale original photos of indigenous craftspeople of China and Yemen with painted decorative frames. By jettisoning P&D compositional strategies in favor of an iconic Modernism, MacConnel finds an elegant formal solution emphasizing his political insights. Hey, whatever works.
This goes for the rest of “The LAPD Project,” too. There are plenty of awesome pieces, none of which needs an elaborate critical apparatus to prop it up; few if any demonstrate ways of seeing that haven’t been inherent to art making since art making began. While P&D may be underrecognized as a historical moment, its triumph was all-encompassing — opening a window to the world, returning artists to their senses, and redefining the function of high Modernist abstraction as just another category of “mere” decoration.
PARROT TALK: A Retrospective of Works by Kim MacConnel | SANTA MONICA MUSEUM OF ART | September 13 through November 15
Panel discussion “NYPD Plaid: A Gathering of Renowned P&D Artists” Saturday, September 13, 3–5 p.m., followed by opening, 5–7 p.m.
NYPD | SHOSHANA WAYNE GALLERY | Through October 4
LAPD | ROSAMUND FELSEN GALLERY | Through October 4
BETTY WOODMAN | FRANK LLOYD GALLERY | Through October 11
ROBERT ZAKANITCH | PATRICIA FAURE GALLERY | Through October 18
CARLA AROCHA and MICHELLE GRABNER | RICHARD HELLER GALLERY Through October 11
All at BERGAMOT STATION, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica