New York

“Pattern On Paper”

Gladstone Villani Gallery

Historically, the celebration and decline of most major modern art movements coincides with their institutionalization as academies that breed new movements standing for opposite values (though adopting some of the features of their predecessors). Since Impressionism, this reaction has usually taken the form of primitivism, with painting returning to the crude, the naive, the childish, the exotic, for energy. Gauguin and Van Gogh retreated—escaped, physically or mentally—from urban life, and the art which reflected it. Closer to home, after Abstract Expressionism came Pop, which was perhaps an escape in the opposite direction, but which clearly found its dynamism in the popular, the vulgar and in what can easily be described as the urban primitive. And this without forsaking the spatters and drips and repeated forms of the newest tradition.

After postpainterly color-field abstraction come many kinds of raw, primitive, crude, “bad” painting, one of them being pattern painting. There is a turn from high art style and an escape into “ancient” crafts; as Richard Kalina lists: “heraldry, board games, tile design, wooden or stone lattice, inlaid furniture, porcelain, playing cards, banners and flags, textile design, racing silks, uniforms, rugs and carpets, quilts, baskets, gardens, arenas, church façades, stained glass windows, architectural ornamentation, ornamental and commemorative architecture, brick and terracotta work, and inlaid floor.” The emphasis is on “primitive” culture as opposed to elitist, inbred, empty Western culture; the sources are predominantly Oriental, Islamic, Japanese, Amerindian. When they are Western, the models are deliberately “low” art, crafts.

Pattern painting reminds one of primitivism except for one thing: it doesn’t place value on how naive or bad the newly considered models are, but on how sophisticated they are. The intricacies and complexities of “primitive” culture are stressed; their intense, insistent workmanship and freedom of expression without egoism sets up a new standard. And like all reversals, pattern painting lets us see what we weren’t allowed to see in the art it succeeds. We can now look at Stella for decorative patterning, for complex diagonal composing and extreme illusionism. The models in pattern painting are frequently nonserious, but they are not used to shock or disrupt, or to seem naive, but just the opposite—to appear knowledgeable, accessible, global, and pleasing. Pattern painting makes Stella and Noland look much less serious and severe, less puritanical, and more decorative, entertaining.

Pattern painting has been around for at least four or five years, and I think this show, “Pattern on Paper,” makes it clear that as a way of thinking, a way of designing, a way of expressing, pattern is not at all a prison of premises which demand obedience to rules, and that the best artists are capable of growing within its style. And the development of individual artists is still very important. From the evidence of the art itself, not from a predetermined program of what “should” constitute “good pattern painting,” I think I learned how pattern functions best, at its fullest. Some qualities: pattern not used as a bald device, but to subvert pattern (Tony Robbin, Jerry Clapsaddle); pattern no longer locked into a grid (Miriam Schapiro, Robert Zakanitch); color or texture becoming thoughtful and intrinsic to pattern, or leading into new territory (Cynthia Carlson, Valerie Jaudon); pattern as structure for collage, collage as a reintroduction of “real” material into essentially abstract painting (Joyce Kozloff); and, in all of the best artists, a look of freedom, naturalness and the handmade, the intimate in detail rather than strict, geometrical repetition, pattern as a device.

Pattern painting does not promise “breakthroughs,” and as a movement it has evolved quietly, rather slowly, without fanfare. That seems to be a good road to take, and is perhaps inherent in the very nature of pattern. Pattern painting slows the eye down so that contemplation of the surface involves more than answers to puzzles; it always points outside to our thinking about all the spaces we live in, the clothes we wear, the objects we use in our everyday lives, and the different kinds of space other cultures make to surround themselves, in the way they decorate themselves and their useful objects. This may make the exotic look more familiar and less mysterious, but it might also open up painting to new possibilities of expression and feeling.

Jeff Perrone