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ART : Everybody Loves a Clown : Kim MacConnel tosses subtlety out the window as he tears down the hierarchy of aesthetics to open the doors of art to the world around us.

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

“Too great an importance has been given to the retinal,” Marcel Duchamp told interviewer Pierre Cabanne in 1971. “Since Courbet it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina--that was everyone’s error. Before, painting had other functions: It could be religious, philosophical, moral, but our century is completely retinal. . . . It’s absolutely ridiculous. It has to change.”

Change it did. In the decade following Duchamp’s observation, his belief that art should provoke the brain rather than please the eye came to dominate art.

Central to the key movements of the ‘70s, Minimalism and Conceptualism, this reductive idea ultimately led art to the point where it was in danger of dematerializing altogether. When the pendulum swings too far in one direction, there’s nothing left but for it to hurtle pell-mell the other way--which brings us to Pattern and Decoration, a shamelessly optical school of Postmodernist painting that had a healthy run in the late ‘70s.

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“Modernism was an attempt to refine, define and streamline; Postmodernism is about stepping outside boundaries, allowing other voices in, and recognizing daily life,” observes San Diego-based artist Kim MacConnel, a key figure in the Pattern and Decoration school, whose first L.A. exhibition in seven years, “Age of Plastic,” opened Saturday at Thomas Solomon’s Garage. (A related body of work also goes on view Friday at the Quint Gallery in San Diego.)

“Minimalism, the reigning Modernist style when I was coming of age as an artist, ruled life out--there was no room for it in that work--and I saw Pattern and Decoration, which uses Third World motifs and images from everyday life, as a means of breaking down the hermeticism of the New York school. Unfortunately, that strategy led to my being labeled kitsch and a cultural imperialist,” he adds with a laugh.

MacConnel’s work has been called kitsch, along with several other less than laudatory things, over the course of his career. Dismissed as “the worst kind of exploitation” by Arts Magazine critic Gretchen Faust, as “solely visual work that offers nothing to sustain the viewers’ interest” by Elizabeth Hayt-Atkins in Art News, MacConnel’s art has been largely read in terms of its relationship to the decorative arts, which have occupied a debased position in the avant-garde for decades. Picking up on the political subtext in MacConnel’s art, however, critic Douglas Blau describes him as “a hawk masquerading as a parrot,” which seems closer to the artist’s intention; the visual cacophony MacConnel whips up in his work is tethered to a foundation of ideas rigorous enough to have warranted his being included in five Whitney Biennials between 1975-85.

Assaulting the viewer with a riotous melange of color and shape, MacConnel tosses subtlety--the central tenet of “good taste"--out the window (he even went so far as to make a series of flocked paintings). At the heart of all his work is the notion of patterning--simple forms repeated at measured intervals. Favoring harlequin patterns, oversize polka dots and bold stripes, MacConnel points out that “repetition essentially functions as a grid, which is the basis of everything from maps to the printed page.” Layered onto these patterns are elements of folk art, Chinese script, funk, space age motifs a la “The Jetsons,” tribal fetishes, Pop and, most importantly, the decorative arts (fabric, furniture and rug design, for instance).

MacConnel might be loathe to admit it, but his work is part of a visually lush tradition that’s always thrived on the West Coast, and stretches from European masters such as Matisse, to L.A. artists like Sam Francis and Billy Al Bengston.

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Meeting with the 47-year-old artist on a Sunday morning in his studio at UC San Diego, where he has been chairman of the art department since last year, one encounters an easygoing man who speaks openly about his life while managing to remain decidedly private. He’s not the sort to bare his soul to the press. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, unlaced purple sneakers and no socks, MacConnel is a surfer and he looks the part--he’s fit, energetic and tan.

His studio is orderly and clean, despite the fact that the center of the room is dominated by a colorful mound of trash, much of which will be recycled into the body of work currently occupying him; “Age of Plastic” is composed of approximately 100 small clowns fashioned out of debris scavenged on beaches here and abroad. Traveling is central to MacConnel’s life, and has been since he was very young.

“I was born in Oklahoma--my father was a geology student at the University of Oklahoma--and shortly after I was born my parents moved to Chicago because my father transferred to a school there,” he recalls. “Not long after that my father wound up being a hospitalized alcoholic, my parents divorced and my mother, my younger sister and I moved to Houston where my mother’s brothers lived. My mother found life there boring though, so when I was 7 we moved to Mexico City and stayed there for six years.”

During the years MacConnel’s family lived in Houston, his mother worked as a decorator. “I’d deny it, but maybe her work as a decorator had an effect on me,” says MacConnel, whose younger sister, Bridget MacConnel, is an artist who does tile work and cloisonne. “My mother took painting classes when we were in Mexico City and always loved art--I grew up in an environment where education was considered important.

“Those years in Mexico City left me with an insatiable wanderlust,” he continues. “As a kid I spent a lot of time skipping school and wandering around Mexico City by myself. We lived there in the mid-'50s when they were building the subway, and they dredged up all kinds of stuff from lake bottoms and stored it on tables in the courtyard of a city building. The front door was always open there and I loved to go look at this stuff.

“My experiences in Mexico City are reflected in the anti-Minimalist art I make,” he adds. “Minimalism was a hermetic movement based on system and theory, and I’ve always been attracted to odd things outside the system. I remember being impressed by this scuzzy old guy in Mexico City who always wore two pairs of pants and left his fly down. He sold artifacts and things like fake Aztec maps in the thieves’ market, and fakery has always been an interest of mine. Fakery, myth and cliche have a beguiling quality of non-reality and are a big part of art-making. Artists create myths and artifacts.”

At the age of 12 MacConnel left Mexico for a pre-prep school in Connecticut, then spent four years at the Tabor Academy, a prep school in Marion, Mass.

“From there I went on to Rutgers University where I spent two miserable years drinking and playing cards, prior to flunking out when I was 18,” MacConnel says. “I was such a hopeless case at Rutgers that just before flunking out I bought some paint and covered the wall in my room with a big, awful, abstract painting. That was the first time it occurred to me to make any kind of visual art--I wasn’t one of those kids who drew.

“When I left school I joined the Merchant Seamen and wound up on a ship off the coast of Vietnam--this was 1966, so it was pretty scary over there,” he continues. “We were in Da Nang harbor when there was a mortar attack, and got shot at a lot going up the Saigon River. The war changed me, not because it was scary, but because it was so bogus. The supplies we carried were medical supplies and a huge amount of liquor. It left me very cynical.”

MacConnel left the Merchant Seamen in 1968 and settled in San Diego, where his mother and sister were living (MacConnel’s mother was born and raised there). Enrolling at Mesa Junior College with no particular goal in mind, he took an art class, “and was lucky enough to get a terrific teacher who liked what I did,” he recalls. “I was just playing around making adolescent pen and ink drawings, but she encouraged me to apply at UCSD, which I got into in 1968.

“I was very ignorant as I entered this arcane world,” he recalls. “At the time I was making large polka-dot paintings a lot like the ones I’m making now, and nobody was making work like that then--maybe somebody in New York was, but I hadn’t been there at that point, and avoided reading about what was going on there. Minimalism and Conceptualism were the dominant styles at UCSD, so I didn’t feel part of things.

“That began to change for me when the New York critic Amy Goldin came here to teach from 1968 through 1970--she was a huge influence on my work. Amy was a rigorous intellectual, which I was not by any stretch of the imagination, and she provoked an interest in that world for me. She led me to begin asking myself such questions as: Why is an Oriental carpet not art? Why is it decorative art? What is a decorative art? Why are Renoir the younger’s pots not art, yet his father’s paintings are art? Who created this hierarchy of aesthetics? I came to the conclusion that a lot of it is simply pedigree.”

Graduating in 1971, MacConnel spent a year in Europe with his first wife, Nina MacConnel-Chino, whom he married in 1969 and divorced in 1980. On returning, he tackled the arduous task of landing a one-man show.

“I mowed a lot of lawns for several years after I got out of school,” he laughs. “Nobody on the West Coast would touch my work. (Orange Country dealer) Jack Glenn showed one piece in 1973, but it didn’t sell and that was the only time he showed my work. That same year I went to New York and made appointments with every gallery in town, but everyone told me my colors were too bright. One person actually told me I’d never get a show in New York because my work wasn’t somber enough.”

That person was wrong, of course. MacConnel made his solo debut in New York two years later at the then-newly opened Holly Solomon Gallery, which played a key role in popularizing Pattern and Decoration. In 1976 MacConnel began teaching at UC San Diego, a job he hung onto until 1980, despite the fact that his work was selling at a consistently brisk pace by 1978. He left the university in 1980, and didn’t return until 1987. “I’ve been here, more or less, for 25 years--I’m totally a product of this place,” MacConnel says.

The other constant in MacConnel’s life is the beach. He lives with his wife of two years, artist Jean Lowe, in the small beach town of Encinitas, goes body surfing twice a day, and has been collecting trash on beaches since 1975.

“This isn’t an ecological show although that will inevitably be read into it,” he says of “Age of Plastic.” “I’ve been making stuff out of beach trash since ’75, mostly flower vases and things like that--in fact, when I moved into this studio the first thing I brought in was my trash pile. I always have a Hefty bag with me when I go to the beach and I just toss things in the bag. I’ve collected trash all over the world--India, Africa, Mexico--and I mix it all together. I mostly pick up aged stuff that looks like it’s been floating around a while, but I don’t collect aesthetically--I’m not looking for treasures or bright sea shells. At the same time, I don’t pick up everything because if I did I’d have a room full of fast-food wrappers. The most common things on the beach are tampon applicators and lighters, and the best beach trash is in Africa--you find plastic baskets, weird little dolls, and all kinds of things typical of that culture.”

As to how he made the leap from trash to clowns, he explains, “in 1993 I saw a show at the Guggenheim called ‘The Age of Iron’ that included work by people like Picasso, Miro and Calder, and for some reason when I looked at the show I just thought, ‘Bing! Clowns are where it’s at!’ There were no clowns in that show,” adds MacConnel, who’s amassed an army of about 400 of the figures at this point, “but it made me realize we’re living in the age of plastic.

“I think of these pieces as the polka dot meets (Minimalist sculptor) Don Judd--Judd is the sconce-shaped base, and the clown is the polka dot,” he says of the work, which will also be exhibited at the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York in November. “The bases play off Minimalism, and the work is installed to create a repetitive pattern on the wall. The clowns cut those formalist qualities though because they’re clearly handmade, and the clown occupies a debased position in art. My hope is that the work reads as funny, pathetic and disgusting. The little clown face is pitiful and humorous, but at the same time, it’s disgusting because it’s trash from our environment.”

Surveying the wall of clowns in his studio, MacConnel says: “I’m pleased to look at 20 years of my work and see some consistency. My first show railed against a Minimalist aesthetic that still dominates the art world to a surprising degree--many young artists are just recycling Bruce Nauman. Minimalism was about austerity and my work is rooted in exuberance. This wrestling match is always going on in art, and I’m absolutely clear about which side I’m on.”

Stats

“Age of Plastic”

Address: Thomas Solomon’s Garage, 928 N. Fairfax Ave., (213) 654-4731

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday

“Clowntown”

Address: Quint Gallery, 1631 W. Lewis, San Diego, (619) 295-1122

Hours: 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Thursday-Saturday


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