New York

Kim MacConnel

Holly Solomon Gallery

Kim MacConnel is one of the best and most interesting painters among the young decorative and color painters. He is also the one who is discussed often and favorably in relation to Matisse. He paints bold and big on fabric prints, taking his imagery from nature and nostalgia, the latter including vintage American mass-cultural icons from the ’40s through the ’60s. He paints in acrylics and metals; stitches vertical strips of painted fabrics together to generate individual works; leaves the bottoms uneven and unhemmed; and, finally, hangs these paintings unframed. Except for the common interest in natural forms, there’s not a lot about his work to recall Matisse—or the Fauves for that matter. Still, MacConnel and company have already been called “The New Fauves” in an exhibition at the Neue Valerie-Ludwig Collection in Aix-la-Chapelle, West Germany.

MacConnel’s recent show provided a good opportunity to see just how his works involve these early French Modernist connections and how they do not. First of all, what is Matisselike about his paintings, of which Miracle is an appropriate example, is the admirable flatness and stick-to-the-surface quality of individual motifs and the whole composition, both due to MacConnel’s skill at harmonious rendering and resolution of contrasts in color, shape, and pattern. Concerning individual motifs, his narrow strip with floral forms recalls a similarly shaped and decorated section in Matisse’s The Egyptian Curtain, 1948, which is also located at an edge, although the opposite one. Since Matisse was painting a curtain, a printed fabric, the resemblance between the two is not surprising. MacConnel’s color range also compares favorably to the Matisse and Fauve palettes where blues, greens, oranges, purples and reds dominate, and his blacks and whites are used effectively like Matisse’s as colors or tonal resonators. Still, what differentiates MacConnel’s coloring from theirs is that it seems materially and texturally bound to the fabric character; the others are intensely luminous, trading in physicality for the transcendental. What generally differentiates his painting from theirs is his American and mass-media sensibility. Of the early modernist movements, Cubism, Futurism and Dadaism are, collectively, closest in spirit, subject, and attitude to MacConnel, given the interest of all three in dealing with the material culture of the life of the time.

While Cubism is ultimately the source of the collage structure, materials and techniques, Futurism is the point of departure for the“decorative impulse- in modernist art, that desire to redo the walls and upholstery and costumes in the movement’s or its artists’ own image. Finally, Dadaism, taking its cue in no small part from Futurism, was concerned with stretching the traditional boundaries of acceptable taste in art and culture. But before Picasso replaces Matisse in the ”why not the best“ kinds of comparisons which some people seem to think that MacConnel (or Robert Kushner or Ned Smyth or . . .) needs to be fully accepted as ”serious,“ it is beneficial to consider his art in an American context. And there, Stuart Davis is the logical art historical source, for MacConnel at least. Davis, after all, was the American master of Cubist collage structure and decorative flatness, combining the two in still lifes which were themselves comments on early 20th-century mass American culture. In Davis’ work there can be found the bold outlines of forms, crisply realistic—not Pop-perfect drawing—and down-to-earth, laconically ironic titles, and these are all things in MacConnel’s art. Davis’ paintings Lucky Strike, 1921, Odel, 1924, the ”Mural in the Men’s Lounge in Radio City Music Hall," 1932, and Rapt at Rappaport’s, 1952, are examples. Like examples from MacConnel’s work are Parrot Talk and Edible. Although Davis’ work may relate on one level to jazz and MacConnel’s to rock-and-roll, the two have similar positions in the serious modernist art of their respective times. Both are American—brash and classy—and this aspect of MacConnel’s art should be examined more. However much Matisse and other French painters may be present, this issue is still only a footnote to a body of work which is intensely American. The a-style, no-style, Punk-nostalgia, retro-chic trends of today have made the ’40s irons and top-load washers, ’50s big-faced television screens and floral and pattern prints important symbols. As used by MacConnel they are also important American Symbols.

Ronny H. Cohen