New York

Kim MacConnel, Jeff Perrone; Peter Nagy

Holly Solomon Gallery, Nicole Klagsbrun

The multiculturalism debate no longer dominates art-world conversations the way it once did. But the conditions that informed it are part of today’s weather, and if we don’t talk about them, well, we don’t talk about global warming either, not at least when we’re running around galleries, unless it’s, like, really hot out. Three recent New York shows raised the issue of intercultural borrowing. The paradox: the strongest of these shows was the one most deeply in dialogue with Western painting.

Two of the artists, Kim MacConnel and Jeff Perrone, were associated in the ’70s with Pattern and Decoration, or P&D (Perrone as a critic, MacConnel as a painter). P&D would seem a promising preparation for a multicultural approach, since it tried to democratize Western “high” art by assuming that decorative arts, including non-Western ones, were visual resources as rich as painting. P&D was also accused, however, of appropriating other cultures’ images and styles without respecting their meanings and contexts, and then presenting them in user-friendly Westernized versions. And MacConnel’s show did seem a little glib. Composite photographs of modern Japan—showing, say, a plaque marking a vista of Mount Fuji along with the steel bridge blocking the view—were set against ukiyo-e–style murals evoking an antique image of the country. These debunking juxtapositions were a little obvious; yes, Japan is a twentieth-century society, and to photograph a liquor-stuffed bar and call it “Temple”—it has a traditional Japanese entablature—is a cheap shot.

Believing that Elvis Presley could simultaneously owe less recognized black musicians big-time and be pretty great himself, I doubt that the morality of cultural appropriation is always decidable. Sometimes, though, it just doesn’t feel right, as with Peter Nagy, whose history as a dealer seems the übertext of his recent assemblages. These potpourris combine Nagy’s own paintings and ceramics with Eastern religious objects and pottery, twentieth-century Western furniture, and works by other contemporary Western artists. Explicitly addressing the relationships and distinctions among East and West, sacred and secular, dais, table, and altar, painting, mandala, and print (Nagy’s own thinly painted psychedelia having a wallpaper-like flavor), perhaps they also mock the collecting habit itself. Yet the exhibition’s checklist implied an arbitrariness in Nagy’s arrangements by quoting individual prices for their components suggesting that you could buy, say, the medieval Chinese vase from Display Table with Triptych, 1997, without its base (Richard Pettibone’s Love Seat and a Jean Prouvé desk), let alone the Nagy paintings behind it, which you might not want. The final effect was of an interior decorator’s accessory stash cunningly disguised as intellectual labor.

The best parts of MacConnel’s show were his murals, washy, subtle, moody. Perrone’s show, too, packed recognizably paintinglike pleasures—but with a twist. His large, asymmetrical, loopily balanced composite works combine painted and glazed earthenware tiles with portions of Indian and African patterned cloth on which forms are painted with pigmented sand. Perrone is a skilled and unusual colorist, playing the dense ochers and blacks of African fabrics against mauves, corals, aquas, and such, which combine far more vibrantly than their medium tones might promise, and bump against the brighter, clearer tones of the ceramics. There’s also a jumping complexity in the works’ textures—with their cloths of different provenances and weaves, their areas of sludgy, icinglike sand, and their hard and shiny clay surfaces—and in their forms, the rougher drawing on the cloth contrasting with the delicacy of the tiles, which show images from various decorative traditions: Persian, Native American, Indian.

The works don’t look like Matisse but remind me of him—through particular passages of line (a fan motif, say), and more generally through their fascination with pattern and with pleasure. In their interest in cataloguing what makes a picture, they have other roots in American art of the ’50s and ’60s. Like Jasper Johns, Perrone will produce the same form several ways. In Rebus, 1995–96 (presumably named for the Robert Rauschenberg work of 1955), yellow ovals echo circles within circles (targets, yet) made of applied cowrie shells. Finer grids of circles appear in the patterned fabric. Such musical variations on motifs extend into variances in facture. Perrone likes to paint without painting, at least as convention would recognize it: by cutting up patterned cloth, then patching it together in staggered sections, he creates a broken, angular abstraction without touching a brush. He uses sand and ceramic glazes instead of oils. He knows that images can be woven into or printed on cloth as well as painted on it, that a jigsaw of found fabrics is still a cloth ground, that a painting steadily shifting in texture, surface, and shape is still a painting—and that its images can come from virtually anywhere. Where MacConnel tries to fix a culture in its past and Nagy tries to market one (or several), Perrone talks of the welcome variousness of the world, and also about the impossibility of approaching that variety from any other ground but the one on which you already stand.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.