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Transcending Decorative

Contemporary artists apolitically re-examine a politically charged 1970s feminist art practice

Caroline Lathan-Stiefel's "Split Barrier" (detail)

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 11/4/2009

Exuberant Pattern: Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, Piper Shepard, Merle Temkin, Huguette Caland, and Astrid Bowlby

Through Nov. 7 at Towson University's Center for the Arts Gallery

In an essay published in 2007, art critic Arthur Danto, quoting Joyce Kozloff, provocatively claims that there are not two, but three types of art: figurative, abstract, and pattern and decoration. And while the first two categories continue to inform art practice and criticism, issues of the third category have remained on the outskirts of these debates, and have too quickly been relegated to craft, or folk art, or costume.

Exuberant Pattern, a five-artist show at Towson University's Center for the Arts Gallery, presents itself as an exploration of pattern and decoration in contemporary art. The brief, yet illuminating curatorial note by J. Susan Isaacs, a professor of art history at Towson University, alludes to the brief, if largely forgotten history of pattern and decoration, or P&D, work by feminist artists in the 1970s.

As Isaacs notes, while the P&D movement of the '70s was explicitly political, confronting the minimalism that dominated the art world at the time, today artists who make similar work are not as consciously invested in positioning themselves as counter to another art movement. In addition, she notes that many contemporary artists are dedicated to the handmade production of P&D pieces, rather than working with readymade materials.

While Isaacs uses the P&D movement as a starting point for critical evaluation of the work, the show itself is much more than a tribute to a feminist art movement. Instead, the works, with ties to sculpture, body art, and pastiche, show how P&D is no longer the entirely separate field of work it may have once been.

This much is clear even before entering the gallery space. Astrid Bowlby's "No more twist, II," takes up much of the first of the show's two rooms with piles of black-and-white paper sculptures. While the collection of scraps of papers, cones, and silhouettes of fir trees could be included in an installation show featuring work made with found objects, here what sticks out is the fact that all of the pieces are black and white, giving the installation an orderly feel even if all its parts are strewn about.

The other sculpture in the show, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel's "Split Barrier," is an even better example of the shift Isaacs describes in the P&D-inspired act. On her web site, Lathan-Stiefel calls her installations "drawings in space," and "Split Barrier," containing everything from brightly colored pipe cleaners to plastic bottle caps to tiny scraps of fabric; it feels like a drawing in which the artist used all of one material until it ran out, switched to another until it ran out, and so on until the piece felt finished. While the large work has fields of color and patterns, the uneven sprawl of the piece makes its difficult to assimilate into the P&D movement.

On the other hand, Lebanese artist Huguette Caland is very much at home in this show. Her mixed-media and oil-stick pieces look like altered fabric patterns, smudging the boundaries between readymade and handmade art.

Piper Shepard's three pieces, in contrast, successfully push the boundaries between the P&D movement and contemporary interests in representing the past without replicating it. Her corsage pin quilt "Pattern Pinning" reproduces the pattern of a quilt through the use of black, silver, and white topped pins. Instead of seeing the finished project, this piece shows the labor of producing a quilt, with each pin standing in for the countless stitches that go into the production of a quilt. Prints of floral images line the edges of the quilt, making the piece an homage to patterns rather than an embrace of them.

Shepard's other two pieces, "Sieve" and "Granulated Diamond," are cut-outs, but they are suspended from the air in front of the white walls of the gallery, producing a slight shadow that gives the pieces a depth that would not work where they simply hung against the wall.

The 24 paintings by Merle Temkin, here collected as a single work titled "Only Me," appear at first be just multi-colored patterns, but Isaacs's note makes clear that they are actually blow-ups of Temkin's left index finger. Temkin adorns many of the pieces with string, returning her fingerprint from the basis for a pattern to an expression of herself.

Like many movements in the often purposely insular world of '70s feminist art, P&D came and went without attracting the same attention as the more publicly oriented work of feminist artists of the '80s and later. By placing these five female artists in relation to the P&D movement, Isaacs allows you to reconsider both this work and art history, and to imagine new possibilities for what may be another way to classify art practice.

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