Local Arts

Pattern and Decoration – and a bit of controversy

“Die Hausfrau,” 2015; oil, acrylic and collage on paper.
“Die Hausfrau,” 2015; oil, acrylic and collage on paper.

If ever there was a reason to fall in love with painting today, Robert Kushner’s exquisitely patterned and kaleidoscopically colorful pictures are surely it.

Kushner, one of the founding members of the 1970s “Pattern and Decoration” movement in the United States, now lives and works in New York, and paints and draws linear representations of flowers, succulents and cacti – plants he says have inspired him since childhood.

He and colleagues – Kim MacConnel, Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro among them – arrived at what’s called P&D with different styles but similar interests: abstract design and ornamentation; more global art and folk traditions than just the West’s (Kushner particularly liked Japanese ornamentation and the elaborately embroidered cloths called Suzani, he said in a recent Observer interview); and the work of feminist artists, who were using nontraditional materials and techniques in weaving, patchwork and more.

The reaction? In this time when Conceptualist and Minimalist art held sway and “ideas” were exalted, some critics deemed P&D fussy and trivial.

In using some of what feminist artists were doing, P&D “challenged the intellectual systems that were supposed to be uppermost in the viewer’s mind,” wrote Anne Swartz, author of “Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art.”

“And there was the beauty thing,” as the New York Times’ Holland Cotter put it in 2008: “In the neo-Expressionist, neo-Conceptualist late 1980s, no one knew what to make of hearts, Turkish flowers, wallpaper and arabesques.”

Today, Kushner’s work invites our attention and respect.

“Midnight in the Huntington Library Cactus Garden” illustrates his drawing prowess, attention to detail and imaginative use of composition. Look closely and you’ll see how specifically each petal, leaf and stem is portrayed. His use of patterning is varied and creative. Whether it be the thorns of a cactus, the fleshy tissues of succulents, the detail of chrysanthemum blooms or geranium petals, his renderings are striking. They become more provocative against radiant and deep color fields.

The pleasure the artist evokes in “Black-Eyed Susans” is based precisely on the overwhelming, meticulous detail he presents. Gold leaf applied to the canvas creates a soulful feel. Inspired perhaps by the glittering frescos in Byzantine architecture or detailed Italian mosaics, Kushner repeats the decorative contours of these blooms with stunning effect.

He uses a Minimalist-inspired translucent white horizontal bar to flatten our sense of space and disrupt the journey our eyes take through the delicately drawn petals, while foreshortening and tipping some of the flowers to cause the illusion of space – creating a push-pull tension.

Kushner’s “Die Hausfrau” is fragments of printed matter collaged to a paper surface. Of this collage series, he said: “I want to make (my pieces) as diffused and confusing as possible. I want the viewer to time-travel as broadly as possible. And so I include papers from as many languages, cultures, times, and places as I can, which become a part of the content of the work.”

Kushner began with a single flower: “a geranium – a lovely, ubiquitous, slightly dumb geranium!” Then, he meticulously cut and collaged each subsequent element smartly around the contours of the centerpiece bloom. The printed marks possess their own peculiar qualities. Combine them and you get the visual equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube. Jumping from one time, place, space and language to another all in the same moment can be perplexing – but pleasurable, too.

Robert Kushner

When: Through April 23.

Where: Jerald Melberg Gallery, 6254 S. Sharon Amity Road.

Details: 704-365-3000; jeraldmelberg.com.