Introduction to Personal Patterns Group Exhibition

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on November 15, 2015



Reproduced with kind permission from Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D.  Originally published as an Introduction to catalogue to Personal Patterns, exhibition catalogue, Montgomery College, 2015

  • Editor’s Note: the group exhibition is currently on view at Montgomery College’s King Street Gallery through Wednesday, November 25. For more information visit the college’s site HERE

The idea for this exhibition originated in a conversation with artist Ellen Hill about the prevalence of pattern in contemporary art. As we developed the parameters of a show that would illustrate this trend in the Washington, DC region, we began to think of pattern as both a visual concept and as a psychological or behavioral phenomenon that can be expressed through artistic means. We then invited a group of area artists working with pattern in a variety of two and three- dimensional media to participate. We wanted to inspire a broad sampling of styles and approaches to pattern, and an exhibition that would represent various points of view based on individual history and personal practice.

We were interested in how an artist’s use of pattern might reveal something about his/her sense of identity, express cultural traditions, ethnic or racial origins, and family ties. Might it be used to express an opinion on political or scientific ideas, or a concern for the environment and its current problems? How can pattern communicate emotion and express meaning? Does it invite intimacy or does it tend to hold the viewer at a distance? Is it feminist, or connote feminism, or is it universal? Where does it fit in modern art history?

With regard to the last two questions, it is unquestionably true that repetitive imagery and mark making are ancient human signs of expression. Nevertheless, a historical connection of pattern with feminine art forms does seem to exist, most evidently in textile arts such as quilting and embroidery.

The association of pattern and feminism was at the heart of the Pattern and Decoration (P&D) movement that swept the contemporary art scene from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. Leaders in what has been termed “the first and only art movement of the postmodern era”1 were indeed feminists. Artists like Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago considered Pattern and Decoration a feminist political statement that challenged dominant assumptions that pattern and decorative arts—the word “decorative” had itself acquired a profoundly negative connotation in the 1950s and 1960s—were strictly feminine, and therefore were either to be considered “craft” or simply inferior. Taking a totally opposing view, they insisted on erasing distinctions between craft and high art, finding inspiration in decorative arts of all cultures. Pattern artists, both female and male, were also challenging the dominant Minimalist and Conceptual aesthetic of the period. Against the austerity of Minimalist formalism and the blank walls with scraps of paper stuck to them that were increasingly common at Conceptual art exhibits, P&D artists opted for the visual and sensual pleasures of painting and sculpture, with color and texture, and with sources rooted in art outside of the Western canon. They specifically opposed the tenets of modernist criticism that held that the dominant movements of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and hard-edged color-field abstraction were somehow the inevitable culmination of what in 1959 John Canaday dubbed the “mainstream of modern art.”

 We were interested in how an artist’s use of pattern might reveal something about his/her sense of identity, express cultural traditions, ethnic or racial origins, and family ties.

Indeed, the period was ripe for this kind of reaction, and there is no doubt that Pattern and Decoration was intimately associated with the dramatic events of the early 1970s in the struggle against the oppressive societal and legal norms that surrounded the lives of women in America. The culture of feminist art activism of which Pattern and Decoration was a critical part was strongly connected to the larger Women’s Liberation movement. It was in these years that so many significant actions affecting women’s rights, such as the legalization of abortion (1973) and the passage of Title IX (1972) took place. In the art world, the period saw the founding of feminist art galleries and collectives all over the country, and the establishment of feminist art programs modeled on the ground-breaking work of Chicago and Shapiro at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1971, soon extending to Europe. The pervasive motive of the art in these galleries and programs was pattern based. Pattern was the movement that first resuscitated painting, claimed “dead” in 1970.

Yet, in the Neo-Expressionist and Neo-Conceptualist later 1980s, the movement faded. Art associated with feminism began to get hostile press. No one knew, as Holland Cotter put it, “what to do with hearts, Turkish flowers, wallpaper, and arabesques.2” To this list you could add the color pink, Victorian valentines, beads, ribbons, Art Deco motifs, Islamic arts, Indian printed fabrics and African textiles and sculpture. However, in large part the result of the waves of multiculturalism, identity and racial politics that have swelled since then, especially in the past two decades, we now not only have place for this art, but our understanding of its potential richness is far broader and deeper. Its meaning and its place in contemporary art is at present uncontestable, and its indebtedness to Non-Modernist sources is now deemed a positive.

The artists in this exhibition clearly demonstrate the extensive and varied use of pattern in contemporary art. What is perhaps most striking is the way that each of the 19 artists represented here has adopted pattern in a personally distinctive way—hence our title. While pattern has been largely detached from its specifically feminist background in the twentieth century, it can still be politically charged, and multicultural sources are often still evident.

Alonzo Davis is an excellent example of an artist who came to the colorful and richly decorative art he makes taking influences from worldwide artistic traditions that he makes his own. Davis has been a world traveler, and for him life patterns, as much as material culture, are influences on his work. His “paintings in the round” reflect modern and postmodern American art, as well as African, Caribbean, American Southwest, and Pacific Rim traditional art forms. His Power Poles are especially connotative of African and American Indian sources, but they, as all of his work, are very much his own.

For Amber Robles-Gordon, Shanthi Chandresekar, and Helen Zughaib, pattern is a way to express racial or ethnic identity. Robles-Gordon has used paint samples as her way of alluding to color and racism, decorating each small “chip” with patterned designs and texts referring to the African-American experience of racism. Chandresekar employs an ancient Indian pattern (Kolam) to create images that speak of the place of women in her native society, while Zughaib makes Arabic script function as pattern in both positive (Circle/Home/Beit) and negative (Secret Lie Self) ways.

Jessica Beels and Ellyn Weiss use pattern specifically to allude to both the beauty and mystery of nature as well as to make statements about the fragility of the environment. Beels has been fascinated by the fact that nature is full of predictable patterns, and that these patterns often have mathematical uniformity. She, too, has sought inspiration from traditional art forms such as weaving, particularly the weaving of fish nets, which are part of her installation. Weiss uses the patterns she finds in sea creatures to suggest the multiplicity of life forms that are endangered by global warming.

Michele Banks has a history of examining the myriad forms of bacteria and the patterns that they create. These she often organized into patterned compositions and wall installations notable for their delicate beauty. Here she is exhibiting the results of a new fascination: the patterns of our bodies, using the EEG and EKG as her source material.

Sean Hennessey’s glass and multimedia works, explore the psychology of pattern in the context of repeated imagery. A Pattern of Stability and A Pattern of Uncertainty reflect autobiographical analyses of his own unconventional life choices. He uses the patterns in old tin ceilings as background to connote the antiquity of these behavioral states, some of which, as he says, one is helpless to avoid. Bridget Lambert objectifies psychological patterns by alluding to them in miniature domestic scenes that she photographs in details to give a sense of the ongoing nature of them. Helen Frederick’s works play on these themes, but in an extremely subtle and nuanced fashion. Her work is visually compelling as it presents us with patterns that connote repeated actions, the ideas of entropy and loss, and even life and death. The density of her media, including the paper itself, gives each of her monotypes in this exhibit a sense of latent and layered meaning.

Memory and repetition in time are themes that have attracted printmaker Susan Goldman. Like many of these artists, her work is in series. In Blue Tempo, we have an example of the merging of two interests: the circle as a recurring form in art and nature and time, expressed in an old round pocket watch. An exploration of memory and its patterns is also evident in the work of Carien Quiroga (Every Memory Preserved) and Joan Belmar. Quiroga’s work also is meant to allude to her experiences as a woman in her native South Africa. Her constructions, often small in scale, include natural elements that suggest African sources as well as, for example in Fragments, specifically vaginal forms. Belmar’s new physically multilayered works allude to buried memories of peoples long disappeared (Selknam Women), pictured as though they are hanging in some imagined limbo. His work also recalls his origins in Chile, South America. The artist has been working with pattern for many years. His richly decorative works bringing to mind the unusual history, beauty, and geographical diversity of his country, its native past, and the constellations of the southern skies.

Reminiscent in certain ways to Roberto Matta’s “inscapes” or inner landscapes, the imagery of Pat Goslee’s paintings appears to emerge from memory and dreams. Using a vocabulary of organic forms that seem to grow out of each other, Goslee achieves a sense of luminous deep space. This is often accented by patterns that are stenciled on her surfaces and then skillfully blended into her intertwined formations. In this exhibit, Goslee’s Generosity is a good example of a large- scale work of this type. Her smaller Love Pours Forth, with its hot pink lacy overlays combining into a Valentine bouquet, is a work that directly connects her to the P&D artists mentioned above, especially Shapiro. Goslee is not afraid of beauty, nor of a forthright feminine sensibility that lures the viewer into the mysterious inner world depicted in her paintings.

Matt Hollis also uses plant-like imagery to draw the viewer in, but his aim is to attract the viewer on a directly sensory level, avoiding any intellectual interventions. To do this he uses faux flowers and fabric, creating three-dimensional relief works that have a nearly irresistible tactile component. Hollis’ rejection of the “logical” and his use of deliberately soft materials and bright colors also connects him to the premises of P&D, but without the political overtones. Nevertheless, his work is not without humor. His  small Floral Jetty in this exhibit, with is curving pink forms, is an ironic reference to Robert Smithson’s enormous minimalist earthwork, Spiral Jetty (1970), which over the years has taken on a pink coloration from the algae that have inhabited it.

Jessica Van Brakle’s intricate drawings are the answer to the question: does pattern create intimacy or hold the viewer at bay? One has to get very close to these drawings to understand their content which, from a distance, often appears to resemble kaleidoscopic patterns. In her recent series Flatland the artist aims at seducing the viewer to come close, to confuse assumptions about perspective, and to enter a “geometric fantasy world.” By limiting the color to black, white, and blue, these works have a clean graphic appearance, but close up one sees leaking margins and other imperfections. Van Brakle’s patterns almost seemto fluctuate or spin with their weaving of bits of the manmade (construction cranes, architectural plans) and the natural (tree and other plant forms). Many of her pieces have colored “gems” attached to their surfaces that add another level of content: is it animal (human), vegetable, or mineral?

Pattern is everywhere around us; in nature, in our bodies, in our dreams, in our behaviors, and in our memories.

Sondra Arkin is also bent on bringing the viewer close to her surfaces which are delicately interwoven and layered in a way that requires intimate viewing. She has said that her work is “about looking so closely that you lose sight of visual reference points.” Her work is incredibly labor intensive and even dangerous. Using materials like hot wax, ink, and shellac, Arkin employs torches to burn away materials on the surface to reveal the designs underneath. Many of her paintings are based on mathematical harmonic permutations, transformed into visual patterns of brilliant color. In this exhibit, Arkin’s series Indeterminacy departs from that into patterns that resemble biological microscope specimens writ large. The skeins of wax and ink form themselves into patterns that might make us think of neurons, brain cells, or strands of hair. Taking a cue from these works, Arkin has created a wire installation made of repeated elements that can be organized in infinitely possible groupings. These forms, in turn, cast shadows that repeat them once again against the wall.

Working with a sense of whimsy that can often turn dark, Elyse Harrison has been working with pattern for many years. Her work is design based and combines a distinctive drawing style with bright colors. Her contributions to this exhibit are two works on wood that give an organic patterned identity to the concept of design, representing it as though it were animate–dancing on the panel. These colorful, amoeba-like forms are juxtaposed to line drawing “self-portraits” of the artist, the figure itself made of bits of pattern. Clearly, it is design that provides the color in Harrison’s life, and the drawings, though spare, convey a sense of joy in her encounter with it.

Finally, artist Ellen Hill, co-originator of this exhibit, also works in wood panel, and has long been working with pattern. Hill has been known by large panels fitted with ranks of rectangular carved, painted, and inked wood fragments that she assembles piece by piece. This labor intensive process has produced remarkable abstractions that are sometimes reminiscent of geological strata, landscape, or even printer’s letterpress drawers. Over the past few years, she also has been combining these abstract forms with figuration; birds, hearts, flowers. As in her two panels in this exhibit, much of her recent work deliberately references quilting, juxtaposing neat squares of repeating flowers with her signature wood stripe patterns. For Hill, these works are expressive of her connection to both the cycles of nature, which may be considered a pattern, while the allusion to quilting suggests those of family. Hill’s straightforward use of these floral motifs, which are resolutely feminine in character, brings us full circle.

Pattern is everywhere around us; in nature, in our bodies, in our dreams, in our behaviors, and in our memories. After years of being relegated to the derogatively meant “merely decorative,” increasing numbers of artists, far beyond the group we have brought together here, have turned to it with enthusiasm. Galleries everywhere are blossoming with it. One might even see the popularity of exotically patterned and colored tattoos as part of this widespread contemporary trend. As a reflection of
contemporary multiculturalism and the encouragement of diversity in Western societies, it is playing a part in the new discourse on what constitutes art as distinct from craft, as well as being one perspective in the ongoing multiplicity of approaches to making art in this century.

1 Holland Cotter, “Scaling a Minimalist Wall with Bright, Shiny Colors,” New York Times, review of ‘Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art, 1975-1985” at the Hudson River Museum, January 15, 2008.
2 Cotter, 2008.