Joyce Kozloff's "An Interior Decorated" at the Renwick Gallery first dazzles and then dazes. She overfeeds the eye.
The walls are hung with printed silks; a thousand shinning tiles, each of them hand-painted, have been set into the floor. The resulting one-room environment is a warm bath of busyness, of birds and griffins, vases, stars and mazes, references and roses. Her pretty rhyming patterns pound on the brain like so many puffy pillows. In that decorative deluge, the mind floats as at sea.
Pattern Painting or Pattern and Decoration, the sort of art that Kozloff makes, has been trumpeted of late in New York and in Europe as deliciously subversive, for it does attack -- though in an oddly friendly fashion -- the relentless macho drabness of much recent abstract art. The pattern people, as a group, do not take offense when dogmaticians flay their art as feminine and overwrought, decorative and pretty. They do not feel that Less is More, that Ornament is Crime, or that "powerful" and "strong" and "tough" are terms of highest praise.
We might have seen it coming. After long decades of warring for the pure and against the "non-essential," after all those years of watching Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Rothko and the rest emptying the fields of colorfield painting, Kozloff and her colleagues have been happily and busily filling in again.
"An Interior Decorated" is a minimalist's nightmare and a list-maker's delight. Though the silks tacked to the walls repeat, in varied colors, only a small number of old Egyptian patterns, it would take a week at least to catalogue the references summoned by the little paintings on the titles that Joyce Kozloff has set into the floor.
"I've painted motifs from many traditions onto these titles," she writes: "American Indian pottery, Moroccan ceramics, Viennese Art Nouveau book ornaments, American quilts, Berber carpets, Caucasian kilims, Egyptian wall paintings, Iznik and Catalan tiles, Islamic calligraphy, Art Deco design, Sumerian and Romanesque carvings, Pennsylvania Dutch signs, Chinese painted porcelains, French lace patterns, Celtic illuminations, Turkish woven and brocaded silks, Seljuk brickwork, Persian miniatures, and Coptic textiles."
The crawling viewer, too, will be able to discover portraits of the artist and of her young children, and patternings that bring to mind shower stalls and tablecloths, feminism and the cut-outs of Matisse. "The entire piece," says Kozloff, "is my personal anthology of the decorative arts."
That pattern art sells well these days is not at all surprising. If one had to pick an art trend to invest in or to bet on for the '80s, the drift towards the inclusive would seem as good as any. Galleries, museums, photographs and jets are showering us with images; countless are the artists, famous and unknown, both alive and dead, who contribute to the flow. "An Interior Decorated" is, at least in theory, a travelogue-compendium that does not cast away this image or that one, but embraces all.
And yet the longer the viewer looks at Kozloff's art, the less successful it appears. Two things undermine it. The first is that it seems to be a little bit too sloppy, too casually constructed. The hangings on the wall are too much of a sameness; the tiles have been poorly set into their grout. If viewers were allowed to walk upon that floor (they aren't), they would surely stub their toes. But what bothers one the most is the way this work seems tethered still to Modernism's dogmas, to the official taste that it pretends to attack.
Those nomads' tents, those quilting bees, those mosques and decorations that this interior conjures soon begin to blur into yet another version of that same old art-world chic. The silks here do not hang; they are tacked flat to the wall. There are no sofas here to sit on, no softness for the touch. Bands, stripes and right angles dominate these patterns. Kozloff, in a sense, has placed upon the wall and upon the floor formal field paintings much like many others. Though her fields are not empty, though she has filled them in with a lot of this and that, "all-overness" remains in charge. Grids rule this work still. Her exhibition at the Renwick will close March 1.