Kim MacConnel

Santa Monica Museum of Art, USA

The Pattern and Decoration movement (P&D) of the late 1970s and early 1980s uncannily resembles America's brief love affair with World Music - both were funky, hip and commercially successful for a couple of years. A cacophony of visual splendour, P&D encompasses a moment in the art world when a loosely knit, self-organized group of American painters on both coasts reintroduced abstract ornamentation to their canvases.

Kim MacConnel - along with artists such as Tina Girouard, Valerie Jaudon, Jane Kaufman, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, Miriam Schapiro and Robert Zakanitch - allowed a wide range of influences, from ethnographic textiles to hooked rug kits, linoleum kitchen tiles to ancient Islamic enamelling, stencilled wallpaper to Indian saris, colonial quilts, Persian kilims, Henri Matisse and American craft traditions to permeate their work. This interest in the decorative coincided with a spirited revival of hand labour, seen in both the art world and the broader American public.

P&D captured the gaudy surge that attained widespread popularity in homes. Around 1978 American living-rooms were suddenly crowded with macramé planters, hairy rugs and batik wall hangings, eclectic and earthy décor that matched the rust-coloured coffee mugs that your mother made in her pottery class. For MacConnel and his peers a genuine interest in traditional craft emerged, albeit with a distinctly non-Western twist.

One of the two biggest commercial successes of the movement (Kushner was the other), MacConnel's whimsical appropriations join wildly patterned strips and scraps to form larger canvases of hanging fabric that don't quite match up at the bottom. Stitching and gluing disparate painted and found fabrics, his signature works almost always lack frames, supplanting traditional stretched canvas with breezy cotton sheeting.

Arriving at the beginning of the end of the feminist movement and hard on the heels of New York and German Neo-Expressionism (which it arguably influenced), P&D unleashed the possibilities for the co-existence of fine art and craft, high and low art, on the same canvas. Like painting, pattern depends on the articulation of surface, depth and light in order to transcend its two-dimensionality. MacConnel's work particularly seems an important predecessor to David Salle's canvases, which joined disparate low-brow source material such as cartoons to high art ideas like the grid. A series of group exhibitions beginning in 1976, a trio of critics (Amy Goldin, Jeff Perrone and John Perrault) and a voracious dealer (Holly Solomon) advanced the cause of P&D internationally. Within this exhibition there is even a small room paying homage to Goldin, who died in 1978. She had been an influential teacher of MacConnel and Kushner at University of California, San Diego, in the late 1960s, when she began exploring the historical tendencies and reasons for abstract decoration. Pattern and decoration has a long legacy of anonymity, imitation and oppression, created by nameless weavers, artisans, copyists and slaves, where repetition subsumed the individual mark, and unity curbed the intimacy of personal expression - think tapestries, vaulted and tiled domes or glittering Byzantine churches. MacConnel's later work responds to this still present phenomenon, and has led him to incorporate photographs of silk embroiderers in Chinese factories and stone quarry labourers in Africa, but his entire body of work can be viewed as a response to original, often ancient, sources utilizing contemporary notions of materiality.

Twenty years after the fact, it is interesting to see if P&D has held up. To see MacConnel's oeuvre, his use of unorthodox materials, his jarring juxtapositions of colour and zany fabrics, is to witness an early integrity, humour and commitment to materials. MacConnel's early explorations are seen again and again in a generation of younger artists, such as Polly Afpelbaum, Jim Isermann and Laura Owens - whose work ought to be read against the context of P & D - but his contributions still go unacknowledged.

Issue 79

First published in Issue 79

Nov - Dec 2003