Art review: ‘Collection Applied Design: A Kim MacConnel Retrospective’ @ Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

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SAN DIEGO -- Ever since Renaissance Venice, painters have traditionally worked by painting on cloth stretched taut over a rectangular frame made from strips of wood. But in the mid-1970s, when some artists and critics were claiming that painting was dead and ripe for burial, Kim MacConnel instead changed the rules of the painting game.

Two unexpected approaches emerged. Using bright acrylics, he painted on salvaged thrift-store furniture -- sofas, tufted chairs and chaises. And, in lieu of off-white cotton canvas, he painted on strips of plain or commercially printed fabric, which he sewed together, did not stretch and simply push-pinned to the wall.


So what is the difference between a traditional canvas on rectangular stretchers and upholstery fabric stretched taut over a wooden frame assembled at a factory in the shape of a chair? Or commercial fabric hanging loose and free?

In a nutshell, MacConnel’s furniture is a three-dimensional painting you could sit in. Paintings stripped of their stretcher bars are banners to decorate a functional space. Both of them cozy into the storied gap between art and life, which Robert Rauschenberg identified as contemporary culture’s most powerful zone of action.

At San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where his first museum solo took place in 1976, a wonderfully engrossing exhibition, ‘Collection Applied Design: A Kim MacConnel Retrospective’ ranges over the complete trajectory of the inventive artist’s production. And the work looks remarkably fresh -- partly because it resonates as an important forerunner to so much important art being made by younger generations of artists today.

For nearly 30 years a merger of art and functional design has been a distinctive strain of powerful production by some of Southern California’s finest artists. In the 1980s Jim Isermann began crafting useful furniture in modular, Minimalist units employing Pop imagery and colors, crossing painting with sculpture and warping stylistic categories.

In the ‘90s, Andrea Zittel was exploring the unique manufacture of self-contained living units; meanwhile Jorge Pardo turned lamps, vases, ottomans and even an entire house into a mind-bending array of metaphysical conundrums (last month Pardo was named a MacArthur Fellow). More recently, Pae White has used up-to-the-minute digital technology and old-fashioned looms to produce astonishingly beautiful woven tapestries.

There are many more examples. And today the hybrid design-art phenomenon has expanded, becoming international in scope. The San Diego show pushes the lengthy Southern California time line back another decade, to the so-called Pattern and Decoration art MacConnel was making.

Around 1973, MacConnel began to look at paintings as if they were utilitarian decorations. To some, the move seemed reactionary. The post-1968 generation was dominated by Conceptual art, which regarded painting as hopelessly Establishment, decoration as frivolous and vibrant color as a flippant sign of escape from serious social issues like bloody Vietnam, criminal Watergate and stubborn race and gender discrimination.

But there’s true heresy at the core of MacConnel’s visually strange, sometimes poignant, often witty and always generous design aesthetic -- dissent from exactly that sort of monolithic limitation on how art should proceed. The speed of modern life is such that conventions are quickly, almost instantaneously formed. MacConnel’s unconventional objects are unthinkable without Conceptual art, but that didn’t mean his work had to be gray, dour, contemptuous of paint or look any particular way.

The Oklahoma native, who has lived in San Diego since 1965, is an authentic maverick. The retrospective includes more than 60 paintings, 16 drawings, eight pieces of painted and assembled furniture (including lamps), plus sculptures and photographic collages. The domestically scaled rooms of the San Diego MCA, which began life in 1913 as a similarly unconventional modern house designed by the great Irving Gill, slyly underscore the art’s rebellious spirit.

Mostly, the difference between a ‘normal’ painting and a MacConnel is that the first hangs on a wall to picture an internal experience or an outside view. Painted furniture and decorated banners, occupying the same space as the viewer, instead objectify it.

MacConnel’s fabric choices and painted designs recall the full span of the 20th century. Think Moroccan interiors by Matisse, African tribal patterns as filtered through Picasso, old California textiles from between the two world wars, Disney-style jet age motifs and Color-field abstractions from the 1960s.

Modernity’s chronological time line is his textiles’ warp. Its weft, with which the art is tightly woven, is the imagery he paints: Scotch plaids, Japanese fans, French abstractions, Turkish paisleys, Indian florals, American wagon wheels, Chinese vases and more.

Some of the banner-shapes recall kimonos laid flat; others suggest Bedouin tents and the trappings of camel saddles. Time collapses, and so does global distance.

His subjects are savvy and deceptively cheerful. One room is lined with 13 square paintings whose vividly colored zigzags, dots and harlequin patterns are plainly abstracted from Picasso’s iconic 1932 painting, ‘Girl Before a Mirror.’ A comfortable ‘Tulip Chair’ in the center of the room, painted with smiley-face cartoon flowers, is an ideal spot from which to contemplate the scene. Vanity, the confrontation of mortality in front of a looking glass, is wrapped in mordant comedy.

Plastic is also prominent -- not least in a wild group of small clown sculptures made from scraps of scavenged detritus. Like the harlequin patterns, a clown is a secular equivalent of religious art’s holy fool, as familiar from commedia dell'arte and Watteau as it is from Picasso and Bruce Nauman. MacConnel’s pitiable jesters, with their bulging eyes made from bottle tops, flopping feet of dust pans and trash-bag apparel are freakish truth-tellers for our deathly Age of Plastic.

In the museum’s glass-walled sun-room, with its magnificent views over the Pacific Ocean, a pile of mostly plastic flotsam that the artist has picked up along the coast over the years partly describes his studio materials. As a grim, hidden new reality lurking within the primordial sea, the petro-trash also reverberates against the otherwise lovely picture-window views: The pile is our modern tribe’s burial mound.

MacConnel’s hybrid work operates in a weird zone between painting and sculpture, art and not-art, uselessness and functionality. And it goes out of its way to emphasize handmade qualities -- contemplative beach-combing, the irregular mark of the brush, the visible stitching of cloth, furniture worn with use.

In our digital era, when images are remotely manipulated, experience is disengaged and corporate alienation is ubiquitous, younger artists by the truckload have been placing a premium on forms associated with hand-craft -- ceramics, Super-8 film, assorted do-it-yourself platforms and techniques. That’s another reason MacConnel’s work seems so fresh, 35 years on. Cast-offs of many kinds nestle within. --Christopher Knight

‘Collection Applied Design: A Kim MacConnel Retrospective,’ Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla, (858) 454-3541, through Jan. 23. CLosed Wednesday.

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