New York

Joyce Kozloff

Joyce Kozloff’s exhibition/installation “An Interior Decorated” employs every surface save the ceiling, so the whole overwhelms at first in a dazzling array of color and pattern. A case could be made for the importance of its overall effect, but for me, her art really comes to life close up. You have to get near to see the tiles, to see what they’re made of, how they’re painted, how they’re different from one another, where their pattern-units come from. You have to get down in a prone or prayerlike position on the floor to savor the complex collage of cultural material. The pattern structure of star/hexagon does not form larger parts which form larger units which then coalesce into a whole. Approximately 1,000 individually painted tiles cover the platform, and the pictorial ones have different pattern-units that are not repeated. Some of the elements even eradicate the repeating star/hexagon pattern and small areas of the floor “lose” the dense allover, pointillistic effect, opening the structure up and out into breathing spaces.

Kozloff’s idea of decoration and decor preserves the separate integrity of different ethnic cultures, but “Interior” insists on our understanding the individual tile and its identity. What Kozloff does not give is a “melting pot,” or simple gestalts—reductions for the sake of comprehension at a glance. Different tiles and different sections of the room must be taken in at their own speed. Some of the tiles are intricately designed, others are solid colors. The wainscoting in the room, printed on paper from Mainland China, is from a series of lithographs titled, “Is It Still High Art?” Value judgments as to the respective qualities of faster or slower sections, brighter or quieter tiles, “blank” or “busy” areas are put on hold, humorously and rhetorically held up to scrutiny. An implied definition of decoration might be that which we can understand visually without having to go through elaborate cultural indoctrination.

Kozloff’s borrowings are piecemeal rather than whole; the room is not a gigantic transference of a foreign visual superstructure into the art gallery (the “Interior” has been negatively compared to the Alhambra). The tiles comprise a collage, and collage structures the room—the juxtaposition of silk banners, pilasters, printed paper, alternations of fabric and clay. Her generous cross-cultural and multi-material conception takes precedence over any general organizing principle derived from another single architectural interior. Further, this “decoration” is not specific to its site, as Kozloff writes; it would work anywhere there was enough room for it.

If there is a more general principle which organizes “An Interior Decorated,” it is not strictly visual. Kozloff’s use of foreign cultural material and craft traditions is exemplarily nonexploitative of its sources. This may have had its practical side: Kozloff must be aware that she cannot compete in technical facility or expertise with the artisans she borrows from—but she can dream about it, admire it, make her own fiction with its possibility (part of the room is titled “Tut’s Wallpaper”). Such competition, where the Western artist “outdoes” the source material, exploiting it, is anathema to Kozloff’s implicit political position.

Kozloff only refers to and mimics these other traditions, as a desire for understanding and companionship, for a diverse community of decorative artists. She can use a material like clay or “decorative” motifs, debased in Western High Art, for their underdog social status, as a reflection of both her own status in the (art) world as a woman, and as an artist in a society where art supposedly does not touch everyday life.

Closer to home, Kozloff’s example defines some of the strategies of the new decoration. Her motives, whether severely geometrical or peacock feather curlicue trellises, punctuate space locally and do not just fill it up. Her use of detail opposes the dominant pictorial mode of structuring abstract shapes for the last 20 years—that is, deductive structure and its hierarchical control. Close up, Kozloff’s art refuses the modernist allover saturation, and gives us instead a variety of intervals, densities, balances and imbalances, weights, and lots of color. Her ideology and practice mediates between the informal, customary rules and values of the craft workplace and the formal authority structure of High Art, producing a new Decorative Art in the human space where they meet.

Jeff Perrone