Pattern Painting, Still
Robert Kushner at DC Moore; Tine Lundsfryd and Rosemarie Beck at Lori Bookstein Fine Art
Upending formalist rules of taste was the mission of the Pattern and Decoration movement in the 70s. Painter Kim MacConnel spoke for the cause when he said, “If you take away the intellectual constructs supporting modern abstract art, one is essentially left with decoration.” P&D insisted that beneath the theories, formalism was largely a preference for particular styles over others. All those acquired habits and signals we associate with refined sensibility are a matter of manners, not inherent gauges of value. In sum, good taste is more a social than an aesthetic category.
|Conservatory Scatter I: Doors
Robert Kushner was a lively co-conspirator from the start. Early pieces were painted on unstretched cloth as costumes for performances. Now he is working on old Japanese screens and doors. Opulent and theatrical, his materials are the same: lavish paint application, swatches of gold, silver and palladium leaf, metallic acrylic pigment, mica and trails of glitter.
Sound over the top? It would be if Mr. Kushner were not so deft a draughtsman or skilled designer. Discipline undergirds the dazzle. His exuberant botanical themes are constructed on ordered principles of repetition, contrast, and directional variation that are as enduring as the Momoyama art that prompts Mr. Kushner’s current work. And he has a sure hand, capable of delicacy and precision much like the Japanese brush painters he admires.
“White Lilac, Lilac Lilac” (2004) is particularly appealing. Coloristically close to its Japanese stimulus, the image divides like the screen that supports it. An over-sized lilac bloom dominates each half; the halves are again divided lengthwise by alternating planes of gold leaf and crosswise by a low border patterned after a traditional textile motif. Swaths of simulated verdigris play suggestions of age against contemporary showmanship.
Metallic leaf catches light unevenly when it is applied over thick, clotted underpaint. Paler color harmonies tend to smooth reflections, lowering the volume on glitz. The converse is true of the dark metallic blues that are backdrops to “Delphinium Sentinel” (2004) and similar dramatic panels. (My own preference for diminuendo is mere taste, as P&D would remind me.)
In a effort to repackage himself, the artist now references John Cage’s theories of chance composition as a major influence on his own painting. Do not believe it. Mr. Kushner’s arrangements are neither random nor indeterminate. While his rhetoric is pitched to marketing conceits, his work remains delightfully faithful to its earliest impulses. It recalls that one brief shining moment—back in the strobe-lit days of disco—when young hedonists ransacked decorative traditions for no higher reason than the joy of it.
Tine Lundsfryd approaches pattern unconcerned with textural ambience. The liveliness of her painting, debuting at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, owes little to the tactile qualities of oil but much to the dynamic manipulation of small units of flat color that create optical effects combining Op Art and traditional quilt patterns.
The artist works on a penciled grid, as indispensable to early 19th century quilt makers as modern Minimalists. Her most recent paintings—variants of the engaging “Faceted Plane” (2004)—are the most striking. These mine the design possibilities of the time-honored American four-patch, dividing small squares into solid triangles of varying colors and shades. Units emerge from dusky tones, emulating the predominance of lively browns in early American calicoes and chintzes.
Ms. Lundsfryd’s technique is close to piece work, applying paint dryly like scraps of cloth to their place on a square. Like a quiltmaker, she repeats and recapitulates the primary block, dividing the overall surface into axes. Following the lines of her grid, some blocks enlarge, some shrink, others evade the anticipated pattern and create unexpected asymmetries. These secondary patterns provide additional contrasts and movements that do not occur within the single block.
Color scraps—here a pale blue, there a clear cadmium red— roam the design at intervals, pulling the eye forward, back and around the canvas. If Sol LeWitt sat down to piece “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” (quilt patterns have names) he could not do better than Ms. Lundsfryd.
Rosemarie Beck’s (1923-2003) embroideries are items of great charm. They are sketches in thread of the same narrative compositions that preoccupied her on canvas: scenes from “The Tempest;” various motifs from Greek tragedy and mythology; art history’s persistent bathers. Intended as pillow covers, they kept her pictorial imagination and her hands at work while she was not in the studio. Uninterested in exhibiting them, she gave them away freely to friends. She made them to be lived with and leaned against.
I had expected to see these as the pillows they once were. But no. Removed from their backings, flattened into frames and placed on the wall, the embroideries invite comparison with the paintings that hang nearby. They are denatured in the process. Ms. Beck’s dancing touch—an almost musical virtuosity—does not translate into the confines of the linear backstitch. Only in their themes and compositional inventiveness are the embroideries analogous to her paintings. New owners should decant them straightaway, put them back on pillows and place them within arms’ reach, where they can be true to themselves.
“Robert Kushner: Opening Doors” at DC Moore Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, 212-247-2111).
“Tine Lundsfryd: Recent Paintings, 1998-2004” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (37 West 57th Street, 212-750-0949).
“Rosemarie Beck: Thirty Years of Embroideries” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art.
A version of this essay appeared in The New York Sun, September 30, 2004
Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey