Dear readers: my apologies for taking an extended break last month. Taxes, Spring cleaning, and a number of submission deadlines interrupted my writing! But this month I want to explore one major function of color: its expression of the decorative.
Historically artists have tended to fall on a continuum, one end of which embraced the pleasures of color used decoratively, the other a move severely idealistic camp, which denounced the distractions and frivolities of color as inappropriate to the service of ideas and pure art.
The latter resulted in abstract painting in which color was limited to the primaries (red, yellow and blue) plus white, black, and gray. But I am more interested in the other end of the spectrum, as it were, where an artist could indulge in the full range of colors’ charms.
The description of painting as decorative is still frowned upon, but there are a couple of recent shows that are unabashedly decorative, though not solely so. One was Chris Ofili’s one man show at the New Museum in New York City this past December. I am indebted to Mira Schor for the photos the the Ofili exhibit taken from her blog: A Year of Positive Thinking. (Her collected essays, Wet and A Decade of Negative Thinking are wonderful reads.)
Chris Ofili is an Afro/British painter who lives in Trinidad. He won the Turner Prize in the UK, but became famous (or infamous) in NYC when he showed an unconventional and irreverent painting of the Virgin Mary using elephant dung. The fourth floor rooms in his show are of particular interest to me, because the walls behind the canvases have been painted with imagery in violet and blue colors that creates a background that has an ‘over-the-topness’ that I love.
It reminds me of other times when the quality of the painting was not denigrated because it was decorative as well as expressive, thoughtful, innovative, etc. Before Modernism won the day in the beginning of the 20th century, the Nabis ( Vuillard and Bonnard) were deeply interested in color and pattern used decoratively. Bonnard was more sensual in his color palette, but Vuillard managed to explore psychological familial relationships within a decorative format.
The other painter that this room brings to mind is Whistler and his Peacock Room, which is now in Washington at the Freer. Of course, at the late Victorian, early Edwardian period (1877), people had not yet been convinced that ornament is crime!
But to return to Ofili, I think that Ms. Shor is right in wondering if this level of decoration would be accepted in the present day museum culture if Ofili were not of African ethnicity and living in the Caribbean. Coincidentally, Kehinde Wiley’s show just went up at the Brooklyn Museum and next post I will look at his use of color and the decorative in his paintings.
1. Create two color palettes of three colors each. One color should appear in both palettes. Mix paints for each palette.
2. Design one repeating pattern. These can be as simple as stripes as ornate as over-all florals. Paint this pattern on 8″ x 10″ cardboard using the colors from one of the palettes.
3. Design a motif. Again this can be as simple as a square, or as ornate as a paisley. Paint ten of these motifs in varying sizes between 1 inch and 3 inches using the colors of the second palette.
4. Cut out the motifs and arrange them on the patterned painting.
5. Reverse the colors, using different palettes for pattern and motif; and repeat the process.