(L to R) works by Philip Taaffe, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin and Damien Hirst (photo by Dan McLaughlin)
The universe is stuck in a rut, be it the motion of the planets, the behavior
of subatomic particles, the cycle of life & death or the ebb and flow of
everything tends to follow some predictable patterns.
Yet the patterns of life, be it the movements of the sun or the coordinated
acrobatics of flocking birds are so pervasive that they often become invisible
unless something provokes a pause rendering them visible once again.
Art can achieve that perceptive pause.
How poetic is it then that this small show at the Portland Art Museum with major
works (many on loan from the Broad Art Foundaion) exploring the use of pattern in Post WWII art is called Camouflage?
Damien Hirst's The Kingdom of The Father gets Scout Niblett's undivided attention
With works by Agnes Martin, Christopher Wool, Philip Taaffe, Damien Hirst and
Andy Warhol it is small but heavy hitting sampler of a major trend in postwar
Truth is pattern is hardly a recent trend; it's a pervasive human impulse to
create visually discernable patterns. From Scottish tartans to Maori
or the metal cladding on a Frank Gehry building, pattern never leaves
our visual vocabulary. That's why modern art was originally so radical; it very
consciously sought to change the visual fabric of Western Civilization (partly
by borrowing from non western sources). Modern art made a case for the
removal of extraneous pattern or ornamentation and explored an aesthetic shift
paralleling the new visual rhythms of an industrial age. Later, as the
cause of modernity became style, pattern became unshackled from any specific
duties, exiting purely out of habit as the ultimate existential visual athlete.
Early on an important father of modernism, Fin de siecle
sought to strip architecture of perfunctory ornament and published
tirades like, "Ornament and Crime" where he equated extravagant ornament
with primitivism and superstition. Back then pattern was emblematic of social
order and it still is today. Yet, in the USA it is rarely talked about outside
of design oriented circles.
Thus, modern art didn't get rid of pattern all together, instead it typically
preferred patterns that revealed its means of production or industrial ties
(a la a Pollock drip, a Duchamp's coat rack, Sol LeWitt instructions or Donald
Judd's serial fabrication). In this way modern art replaced the ritual of tradition
with the industrial rites of production. In the cases of LeWitt, Joseph Albers,
Mondrian or Judd each artist seemed to possess a kind of underlying production
algorithm for pattern
in the case of LeWitt he literally created the algorithm
or instructions and let others take a hand in producing the art.
Though hardly a comprehensive survey each artist in the Portland
Art Museum's Camouflage
show addresses recent rituals of pattern. Each artist posesses a unique
set of goals and effects that explores and deepens our enduring fascination with repeating visual forms.
Warhol's Camouflage (1986)[top], Agnes Martin's Untitled #13 [bg] and Christopher Wool's I Smell a Rat [fg]
The eponymous work of the show, Andy Warhol's Camouflage at 37 feet wide could
render most walls invisible but in this show it is mounted at least 11 feet
off the floor on an expansively tall wall in a huge space designed by Pietro
Belluschi (who was following Loos' only slightly earlier lead).
The effect of such a hang hints at the religious but instead of an experience
we are confronted with a militaristic pattern designed to obscure
whatever it covers. In today's context it is an incredibly wry use of pattern
and space as The United States seems to be caught in a war pattern of its own.
To my cynical eye the pattern of war only seems to produce more war.
Similarly the camouflage pattern itself is repeated 5 and a half times and
its mechanical reproduction ironically parallel's the dehumanization wars always
seem to spread.
The painting is also one of the last executed by Warhol who was best known
for his silkscreen portraiture of celebrities. Warhol once even stated he'd
like to be a machine and maybe in this one case he has achieved it. When I view this piece I don't consider it a product of Warhol's persona seeking out other personas M.O. Instead, I see a militaristic pattern and self fullfilling prophecy. It certainly fits in with Reagan Era cold war arms spending.
Still, Camouflage reads different today as the military isn't just an expenditure
that consumes money. It consumes human life and the camouflage feels too cool,
too clean and to reproducible to trust and it's a sad, uneasy testament to Warhol's
work that it continues to feel so relevant today.
Philip Taaffe, California Kingsnake (Ringed Phase), 1996-97. Mixed media on
canvas. 91 ¼ x 117 inches. The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica.
The work of Philip Taaffe is a cousin to Warhol's use of mechanically reproduced
images and is even more intensely interested in pattern. In California Kingsnake
(Ringed Phase) the snakes are screened over and over again with skins that phase
through the ROYGBIV color wheel, yet another form of pattern. I particularly
like how the snakes have been screened onto the other side of the canvas, bleeding
through to the surface. The net result is ornamental but so thoroughly so that
the reproduction of the snakes becomes rythmic, giving these very man
made reptiles a convincing naturalness that merely 2 or 3 images could not
Bathyllipsis (detail) courtesy of the Broad Art Foundation
The other Taaffe in the show is Bathyllipsis, which sports fuchsia, white, teal
and baby blue arcs. Though painted in 1995 it simply screams the 80's to me. I dislike this painting
but somehow I can't stop thinking about scary 80's things like friendship pins,
the Thompson Twins etc. in front of it. Funny how certain patterns and colors
can be so indicative of a certain time. It's too bad there weren't a few more
Philip Taaffes here that explored different eras like his
explorations of middle eastern patterns
etc. Over the past 50 years he's definitely become a key pattern
Wool's Untitled (1988) courtesy of the Broad Art Foundation
Similarly, another painting that seems to have crossed the line into pure style
(which by no means invalidates it) is Christopher Wool's Untitled from 1988.
The pattern is beautiful, cold and utterly opaque in a way that makes the Warhol
and the Taaffes seem warm and fuzzy. Here the pattern is self replicating means
to itself. This is art that has backed itself so far into a cynical corner it
becomes generous and open ended
It's the sort of work that only could
have occurred during the end of the 80's.
Detail of Untitled
Wool's somewhat later painting in the show, "I Smell a Rat" feels
soft by comparison to Untitled but it's also more street as it replicates some
of the layer upon layer accretion of graffiti art stencils. It is almost a form
of street art reduced to meaningless territorial heraldry. Im not completely
convinced by this work but some like Jerry
Saltz swear by it
. I much prefer his
stenciled word series
but they don't fit into this exhibition's subject
matter. Maybe this is the painting that questions the inherent "mere decorative" suspicions
one always seems to encounter in pattern oriented art? Still, decoration in the hands of an artist like Wool is more than just an affectaion.
Damien Hirst's The Kingdom of The Father (2007) courtesy of the Broad Art Foundation
As the master of late 20th century and early 21st century presentation art
Damien Hirst seems to take the lessons of Warhol, Judd and Bruce Nauman while
infusing them with all the presentation savvy of a major PR firm obsessed with
mortality. Finally, we have an artist who seems more formidable than
a multinational corporation. Yet, Hirst's work goes beyond slick pitch perfect
Hirst's latest major work to be revealed publicly "The Kingdom of the
Father" shows just why those shocked by his prices or celebrity have latched
onto a red herring; this piece routinely stops people in their tracks utilizing
little more than pattern, butterflies and ecclesiastical window dressing.
Consisting of three arched panels filled with butterflies and moths, the dead
insects create obvious references to stained glass windows like those
at Chartres cathedral
as well as referencing Matisse's Barnes foundation
murals. Is it possible the "Father" Hirst is referencing in the title
is Matisse not a Christian God? That thesis is further supported by the use
butterflies in all three panels that were very important
to Matisse. Before Matisse fully developed as an artist he spent his entire
month's budget on one of these blue butterflies and his late cutout work
often pays homage both to their color and delicate nature. Matisse was a master
of pattern as well and perhaps Hirst is making both a sly joke about the power
of beauty, death and art history while being sincerely interested in the final
effect; inspiring awe through death.
The Kingdom of The Father (detail)
For every dismissive half-interested journalist who slags Hirst for being flashy
successful and generally unaffected by whatever they write here is a piece which
overshadows the persona of its creator. Sure, other artists like Jean
Dubuffet have used butterflies before
but by creating such a jaw dropping
display of pattern, steeped both in death and beauty Hirst uses the visual languages
of science and religion to nullify one another. Hirst is an
artist who sets up stalemates between an overload of visual presentation and
conceptual questions that cannot be answered
what technique is better
than pattern to convey such hermetic loops of information?
(fg) Agnes Martin's Untitled #3 (1984) Courtesy, Miller Meigs Collection
The work of Agnes Martin, though visually the quietist work in the show, best
exemplifies the personalization of ritual as a way to produce pattern. Her paintings
exist as an outward example of an internal practice.
For example, her untitled #3 consists of numerous grey horizontal
stripes. Each stripe was painstakingly created by repeated applications of very
thin acrylic paint, allowing the acrylic to permeate thoroughly the fibers of
the linen support. Thus, the finished painted pattern isn't just a surface treatment
it is a record of the very ascetic accretions it was created by.
This high level of internal and external consistency shows how pattern can
bestow a sense of legitimacy, acting as an analog for commitment.
Detail of Agnes Martin's Untitled #13 (1980)
Another Martin, the gorgeous Untitled #13 is more delicate than Untitled
#3 and its graphite lines separating incredibly nuanced acrylic paint stripes give it an almost middle eastern air. Neither #3 or #13 is fussy though, the patterns
are expansive, patient and careful. Agnes Martin's work makes a case for pattern
as an analog for wisdom.
This shouldn't be surprising as Martin, Hirst and Warhol are all artists whose
personas cannot be separated from their work. In fact, their work tends to deepen
the viewer's respect for their personal process while mere descriptions come up short and often provoke cynicism.
Maybe that is why Martin, Warhol and Hirst are all artists of the highest order
and other pattern artists like Taaffe, Wool, Chris Ofili, Alex Grey and Ryan
McGuiness though good, aren't likely to reach the same heights.
The fact remains that pattern, rather than being a smokescreen can also translate
or reveal worldviews and represent hermetic practices as a hueristic gestalt.
As an opportunistic sampler show Camouflage is satisfying as a conversation
opener but one wonders what a more thorough show also including the likes of Gilbert
and George, Joseph and Anna Albers, Klee, Mondrian, Jessica Steinkamp, Karin
Davie, Judd, Matisse, Jackson Pollock and Yayoi Kasama would have been like?
Still, for a city hungry for serious contemporary art seeing work by Warhol,
Martin, Taaffe, Wool and a new Hirst in an intellectually coherent show definitely
shows just how much more exciting the Portland Art Museum's programming has
become. Camouflage, curated by Bruce Guenther is definitely revealing a new
pattern at PAM and Portland in general. The universe may be stuck in a rut but the best art isn't.
show runs through November 4th 2007