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Holding Pattern 

It was a late-1970s thing. When the Pattern and Decoration movement gained prominence in the art world, Jimmy Carter was president, John Travolta and disco were in, and large numbers of people who should have known better were wearing polyester leisure suits. Clearly, it was a time of widespread mental confusion and wholesale cerebral lapses that led an unwitting public, perhaps all too inevitably, into the Reagan years.

The Pattern and Decoration movement was meant to be a return to the decorative in art, a sensibility at least partly grounded in the feminist movement's embrace of "women's work" such as quilt making and knitting as inherently noble, good and true to the female spirit. It was an approach that also lent itself to other themes and concerns without ever seeming to stand for any one thing. Ultimately, P&D, as it was known, came perilously close to blurring the borders between fine art and the crafts, which made it tricky to defend against charges that it was essentially superficial fluff. Consequently, it was quickly buried beneath the tidal wave of hype that surrounded the neoexpressionist movement of the early 1980s.

Until recently it was almost forgotten, but even as relics of the 1970s and '80s have resurfaced as vintage fashions, so too has interest in P&D revived in recent years. This Newcomb show, curated by Michael Plante, explores parallels between the prototypical 1970s movement and the recent work of four local contemporary artists. Of them, Brandon Graving's monoprints are among the truest to the spirit of the original.

In Russet Flower With Echoes, a stylized blossom appears against a streaky bluish field like a fossil embedded in limestone. Other titles invoke the sky or ocean, yet Graving's surfaces convey the visual heft of bas reliefs, so it comes as some surprise to realize that they are monoprints in which her stylized flowers have been embossed. The look is decorative, and her skill as a printmaker is evident in the fact that we have no idea what they are until we see "monoprint" just after the title.

As curator Plante notes in his wall text, what distinguishes most of these artists from their '70s forebears is content, and in this vein, Kathy "K. Maxx" Sizeler does indeed seem unafraid to make a statement. In fact, Sizeler uses linear patterning and pastel colors to suggest the profiles of "ideal" male and female types, in this case body builders, superimposed upon each other. And then there is a sequence of images in which men's shoes morph into high-heeled women's shoes, in what suggests a peculiar new strain of gender-bending op art.

No less wavy are Teresa Cole's block prints in her Security Pattern installation. Hanging on the walls like quirky sheets of wrapping paper sporting moire and Escher-like patterns in watery pastel colors, they are described in a wall text as having to do with gender, optical seduction and even national security. Cole says, "These complicated decorations obscure information in order to keep it secure." Hah -- and you thought it was wrapping paper! Little did you know it was really encoded conceptual art.

Nicole Charbonnet's new mixed-media pieces contain no coded messages, just partially obscured flowers and art history riffs, among other things. After Durer is a panel with pale flowers that recall certain of Durer's botanical images. Erased Riley has pale colored stripes and recalls Brit op painter Bridget Riley. Their finishes are textural and dense, with scalloped floral patterns, so the breezy subject matter contrasts with the apparent heft of surfaces that suggest eroded plaster walls with pastel wallpaper designs leeched into them through some sort of osmosis. In an earlier work, Starry Night, similar surfaces reveal bits of text, conveying hints of concealed messages embedded in layers over time. All convey a sense of fluid ideas, dreams or illusions solidified into something concrete.

While not originally intended as P&D, all of these artists' works do indeed reflect something of the pattern and decoration sensibility updated into the present. At the same time, they also illustrate why the original P&D movement, despite its recent revival, came so close to being forgotten. Such works were ultimately only as strong as their content, and any substantive content always originated elsewhere.

click to enlarge Brandon Graving's monoprints are among the truest - to the spirit of the original Patter and Decoration - movement of the 1970s, as shown in Russet Flower - With Echoes.
  • Brandon Graving's monoprints are among the truest to the spirit of the original Patter and Decoration movement of the 1970s, as shown in Russet Flower With Echoes.
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