Chicago

Amy Yoes

The Cultural Center

Amy Yoes’ recent paintings celebrate the mesmerizing language of the Western decorative tradition. Sometimes surprisingly suggestive of the rhythmic tempos of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, her canvases churn with visual incidents that overflow the picture plane. But, in a manner completely unlike Pollock’s, Yoes’ images remain firmly entrenched in history, a labor-intensive acquiescence to ornamental pictorial traditions usually overlooked or considered bankrupt. Carefully delineated ruffles and flourishes are at the heart of Yoes’ work: her paintings become labyrinthine mazes of painted festoons, curlicues, garlands, tassels, ribbons, and brocades.

Salvaged from a wide variety of sources—including manuals of ornamental motifs—Yoes’ pictorial data form an encyclopedic compendium of decorative tradition while still managing to investigate its underlying themes and impulses. Her paintings hover between nature and abstraction, illustrating that, throughout their development, decorative formal designs have had their roots in conscious efforts to regulate and systematize the natural world. Plant and leaf forms, in particular, were flattened into an ordered geometricization, the impulse for growth determinedly redirected into an impulse to create patterns. In Yoes’ work, though, this system is encouraged to run riot in a delightful and ahistorical neo-Rococo excess: explosive and meandering proliferations of elements accrete in dizzying, layered inventories of motifs.

A keen eye for calligraphic rhythms perpetually informs this work. In Ultra Arpeggio, 1992, Yoes shuffles together centuries of pictorial devices, ranging from Renaissance architectural ornament—itself drawn from antiquity—to passages reminiscent of the work of Pollock and graffiti artists. But Yoes’ work most strongly suggests a late-Baroque world view—a mannered and hothouse elegance wrought from a risky overindulgence in ephemera. Things are jammed together into an ornate trellis in which decorative impulses are both means and ends, creating a complex language of coloratura. Carefully orchestrated color plays no small role in all this, and Yoes uses glazes to mute what is otherwise a very broad palette, ranging from bright blues and oranges to a more dominant and sedate sepia. In Foraminifera Nocturne, 1992, Yoes’ repertoire of motifs swirls more decidedly in the center of the panel, like a whirlpool that seemingly absorbs energy and attention. This is a tour de force, a delicate performance intriguing to witness and dissect. Yoes’ inexhaustible and endlessly malleable motifs always lead to a renewal of the possibilities of the formal and historical legacies of her source materials. She resuscitates them to employ them more spectacularly, transforming their supportive and attendant role into a central one.

James Yood