Los Angeles

Kim MacConnel

Jan Baum Gallery

Why would Kim MacConnel turn his back on a perfectly acceptable strategy for painting, one he earned the right to use as one of the original pattern painters of the ’70s? If he had to do it, why didn’t he exchange one slightly tired formula for a newer, more intellectually respectable one? MacConnel is a bright fellow and he must know why choosing from among carefully considered alternatives is so crucial to the careers of painters in the late ’80s. But no, in a perfectly perverse move, he has elected to return to some old, insoluble and by now virtually antique problems of composition. In his new paintings, grand irregular wedges of color jostle each other in a densely packed space, now evocative of a broad landscape, now busy and crowded as a mid-city intersection. A poignant bravado reminiscent of pre-World War II geometric abstraction inhabits this work. One hears the muffled voices of Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, and a host of other Americans of the ’30s who struggled long ago to merge Cubism’s structure with Surrealism’s sensuous calligraphy.

MacConnel’s new work is no revival but perhaps more precisely a reliving and retracing of impulses that one suspects are genuinely his own at this point in his career. He establishes an atmosphere of precarious confrontation in each painting through a cacophony of oranges, reds, yellows, and virulent greens, and the zigzag movements of lines and planes tumbling and sliding as they collide. Beach towel stripes and dots and brightly colored bikini wedges are trapped in the larger panorama of forms in opposition. If there is a decorative element in these paintings, it is a subtext rather than the main topic.

One Los Angeles critic mentioned MacConnel’s supposed debt to Matisse, compared these paintings to a child’s bedspread, and dismissed them as “relatively ordinary abstract paintings.” One would wish a child a better night’s rest than to slumber beneath such visual turmoil. Nor do these paintings aspire to the state of Matisse’s “good armchair in which to rest from fatigue.” MacConnel’s work of late 1987 is anything but ordinary in an era in which many artists find it difficult to connect with the earlier art of this century in other than a parodic, self-conscious, “retro” spirit.

It was something of a shock to come upon these apparently simple paintings and to feel quite uncomfortable in their presence. They seem to rely upon exaggerated scale a bit too much, and the colors are combined with an unabashed ebullience rather than subtlety and studied counterpoint. They are perhaps too broadly conceived to maintain their interest over a long period of time. Nevertheless, they have an audacity and fearlessness that speaks of an artist listening to his own instincts and needs before anything else. The struggle one senses in this work is not one of conceptual strategy but of visual syntax, the renewal of old forms to express new feelings. At mid-career, MacConnel has found something in his own vocabulary worth pursuing with a startling, unaffected ardor. How invigorating it is to observe it, and how interesting it will be to see its evolution.

Susan C. Larsen