January 31, 2003
The decorative impulse in painting periodically has promised to restore pleasure to a practice that had become too cerebral. The last time this happened was in the wake of Minimal Art, with the short-lived 1970s movement known as Pattern Painting.
Now a number of young artists who are in no way connected look to the past as a way of modifying conceptually based painting. Nicole Gordon, who is having her first solo exhibition at the Peter Miller Gallery, is one of these artists.
As the pattern painters chose Henri Matisse for inspiration, so does Gordon return to earlier French art, though her way back is less direct She is interested in academic painting of the 19th Century as it was reflected in wallpaper patterns.
The central portion of each of her panels reproduces an exotic scene that relates to a decorative treatment of, say, Orientalist painting. This she surrounds with abstract motifs derived from mosaics, textiles and color charts, before adding glass beads or glitter.
Sometimes she treats the subject she represents—conquistadors, crusaders, desert architecture—in a complementary sculpture that views the same motif from a different angle and recasts it in three dimensions. More often, Gordon extends decoration beyond the boundary of her pictures, by strewing glitter on the floor or continuing an arabesque onto a wall.
The overkill of the artist’s decoration does not annul her representational scenes. On the contrary, it looks meant to act as a sensuous foil to scenes that remain conceptual, as most of the motifs are about imperialist conquest of one form or another.
This is quite a load for each painting to bear, and it’s not borne easily.
The pieces add up: viewers will have little trouble seeing where the artist is going. But the extravagance of her decoration keeps us from yielding to it, for the pleasure it offers come close to being kitschy. And that, in turn, eats away at the conceptual aspect of each painting until you find yourself giving credit for the effort but not accepting the synthesis as a convincing result.
Still, the ambition here is impressive. Its development should be interesting to watch.