In April 2007’s Artforum, critic Brian Sholis wrote that Kevin Zucker, a New York City based painter, had started to mature in his output. His paintings held more complexity than recent years, and thus Zucker had moved on from an art “that felt merely decorative.” After reading this review, Chicago-based artists Marilyn and Peter Frank grew irritated by the insult inherent in Sholis’s phrase, merely decorative. The Franks’ response is a work in neon script that mirrors the critical remark; it reads merely decorative and glows a clean white light. It’s as if this work is as light-hearted as Sholis’ criticism is heavy-handed. Indeed, the judgments that accompany seemingly objective descriptive terms, such as “decorative” or “conceptual,” sink these sort of art forms by making them stilted. On the flip side, what happens when an artist makes work with the intention to be purely conceptual or merely decorative? Easy categorization can well become the barrier in the mind that prevents any artwork from being made at all. And, after the work is made, regardless the artist’s intention, a critic can pass it off as not-important (decorative) or relevant (conceptual). From either end, when sticking strictly to any category, you’re probably dealing with art that won’t last longer than your typical $5 H&M t-shirt after a night of drinking flavored vodka at a loft party.
I had to wonder if Marilyn and Peter Frank’s response, motivated by an intuitive sense that something was wrong with values in the art world when decoration gets so easily written off, could have been more productive had it not been created to be purely ironic, or rather, merely ironic. In other words, why respond with a knee-jerk if, as a successful designer (which they both are), the criticism could prove to be unfounded by creating decorative arts that stand on their own (and they do; they just weren’t displaying them today). In fact, the group show that is curated by the Franks, “Nothing Can Be Yours Forever,” aims to present material that is designed in the style of conceptual high art.
Conceptual art as decoration: I can’t see that there’s anything wrong with that except perhaps that traditionally, the decorative arts were not only pretty but also functional, whereas new decorative art is easy to trip over because you just really can’t seem to find an easy spot for it in your house. I don’t think that contemporary decorative painting and sculpture is a ruse, either. It’s not parading as something it’s not (the Franks’ irony indicates a thorough amount of self-consciousness).
Across the street at Kavi Gupta’s gallery, Hans Hemmert’s new objects are exasperatingly decorative, as if he took already highly stylized objects, such as sports cars and religious icons, and magically metastasized them into cheery bright-orange tumors. Hemmert’s universe also includes some type of sword-wielding warrior figurine (an endless pop-cult hero) and the artist’s infallible tool of horror, a crying baby-doll. It’s not as disgusting as it sounds. In fact, the sleek designs are probably some sort of engineering achievement. They are as silky as rococo porcelains and would look great on a marble side-table next to the Swarovski chamber pot.
The River North gallery district often disappoints unless you’re a subscriber to the decorative-art-is-okay-with-me mentality. Then, everything is worth looking at, especially Jackie Tileston’s new paintings. I’m trying hard to not sound ironic because this sort of tone is taken as a character voice nowadays. But really, there is a place for all these different sort of art forms to exist side-by-side. Art historian David Rodgers describes 18th century “Fancy pictures” by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, as a genre unencumbered by moral or educational prescription. “They could be hung successfully among old master paintings,” writes Rodgers. Tileston’s painted patterns are overlaid on pastoral picnics and picturesque landscapes in geometric patterns that are often graphically bold, cartoony and psychedelic. Tileston’s sense of design is strong, yet as much as is added atop the fluffy pastoral scenes, the paintings remain fluffy, which is to say they are well-adjusted to contemporary taste.
Favoring eye candy over hard to chew intellectualism may just very well work out like a sugar pill for a hypochondriac’s stomachache.
Published in Newcity (September 11, 2007)