New York

Frank Faulkner

Monique Knowlton Gallery

Is pattern painting dead? Tom Marioni has recently written that it “will end as fast as Op Art did.” A number of prominent pattern painters won’t publicly discuss the issue anymore (it’s old news) and prefer “decorative”—although even that word is losing its anti-formalist effectiveness. The really important kill-off, the signal that pattern is ready to be scrapped: one room of the Whitney Biennial is devoted to pattern-decoration-banner-architecture art (Joyce Kozloff, Kim MacConnell, Rodney Ripps). When it’s come this far in its institutionalization, hasn’t it got to be nearly over?

Frank Faulkner’s paintings have changed. Whatever charms they might have possessed before are veiled by their insistent patterns. Perhaps a movement is dead when it spawns a string of imitations. Faulkner’s previous work consisted of dots and dashes as motives repeated in an allover configuration, with special attention to the edge. He now uses these motives, but they are structured in heraldic wholes, very tight and together a “gestalt.” The motives resemble (to me) metallic jimmies on cakes. In Faulkner’s decorative painting, Rhoplex and metallic powder create a shine suspended in a translucent volume. On the uppermost surface, the tips of terrain, dots of paint may have a dark spot somewhere on or in them—like frogs’ eggs. But the metallic colors do not shine at all, they don’t glow. Faulkner seems quite afraid of the tackiness of ornament, or shine. Everything is muted and tasteful. The paintings have very nice individual passages, but as wholes they brown out, as if we were seeing them through smog. The effect is more like tarnished than polished metal, a fault which may be inherent in the Rhoplex surface. The encrustations of paint look worn, used—something ancient, perhaps. Very small detail: hardly more than an accent, small green trails occur under ripples of copper color, suggesting an oxidized, exposed-to-the-elements, chemical process.

The move has been from a loose, vague, simple allover painting image of dots, arcs and dashes, to the same vocabulary of marks made orderly. Chance becomes fate. What was “free” (the fluid, irregular gesture derived from Pollock) reverses itself into a control situation. The pieces fit together in a system—but do not reflect it. The tiny, swarming units in Faulkner’s painting are like worker ants digging out a colony—symmetrical, geometrical, ordered. All this activity, all the expended time and energy, is rigorously formal: every section subordinates itself to the next larger area, ultimately responding to the whole, the highest unit of authority. But there is nothing in the original units that reflects this broad syntax.

What I am trying to say is that for all their good looks, the patterns do not appear to be discovered as the result of working, or of some inherent property of the smallest detail. The wholes look predetermined, and the mark just fills up space. You can’t enter the surface, get beyond its crusty thickness. The elaborate detail kind of collapses into patterns; there is no back-and-forth or give-and-take between the various levels and different scales. For all the technical virtuosity, there is nothing ravishingly complex in the execution as in, for instance, medieval shields or wood inlaid with carved ivory decoration—two things Faulkner’s paintings resemble. These flaws eat away at a possibly more satisfying experience.

Jeff Perone