In his polemical essay “Jewelry and Crime” from 1913, the architect Adolf Loos railed against decoration as wasteful, wanton and impending obsolescence. He was right on that last point: Modernist architects and designers, fueled by his integrity, spent decades systematically stripping their work of excess, leaving behind cities of cheerless glass and bare concrete.
Ornament flourished anyway because there are always gaps that need to be filled. To gratify a universal desire, people adorn themselves and the surfaces around them with jewelry, mementos, snapshots, patterned fabrics, religious figures, and other offenses.
The noise of the ornament, an exhibition at the Drawing Center in Manhattan that does its best to shake off the Loos curse, brims with decorative exuberance. In their search for opulent surfaces, the curators found tattoos, wallpaper, designer imitations peddled by Canal Street merchants, scrimshaw carvings on whalebone and more. The title belittles Owen Jones’ 1856 triumph of rational classification, The grammar of ornament. Offended by what he saw as kitschy mid-Victorian tastes, Jones proclaimed himself the aesthetic enforcer, enumerating rules for each design task according to elaborate codes and hierarchies.
Curators Emily King, Margaret-Anne Logan, and Duncan Tomlin see ornament not as a defined catalog of references deployed with professionalism and restraint, but as a worldwide need for richness and complexity. The show wanders through cultures and centuries, looking for resonance and communication channels. It is somewhat rigorous to trace the way in which a geometric motif common in (unfortunately nonexistent) Ottoman metalwork and textiles appears in a late 15th-century drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, reproduced in unattributed engravings and a few decades later the fine tracery of a Dürer woodcut reappears. The trail isn’t quite going cold: Dürer’s top disc reappears on Bob Dylan’s forehead in a 1968 Martin Sharp poster, staring out from the thicket of the singer’s explosive hair like an all-seeing eye enhanced by psychedelic drugs.
Ornament has long been held up as the pinnacle of refinement and also dismissed as primitive. Jones believed that all societies value patterns and that their desire for them “grows and increases with all in proportion to their civilizational progress.” In 1925, Le Corbusier decreed the opposite: “Decoration: spheres, charming amusement for a savage.” The Drawing Center exhibition strikes a middle ground, boasting the joys of excess but also attempting to give museum-worthy meaning to a boundless urge.
This balancing act reminds the curators of the unworldly efforts of the past to categorize the uncategorizable. During the Great Depression, the US government dispatched 400 illustrators across the country to discover and document a uniquely American approach to craftsmanship and its manifestation in ornament. This army of skilled watercolourists has rendered their finds in pinpoint paintings, some of which are shown here, of saddle cloths, painted chests and patchwork rugs. The resulting images were collected in The Index of American Designa reference work that strove to define national character and a modern aesthetic.
Sober reporting was sometimes pushed aside by a combination of imagination and indolence. Under the guise of recording the contents of a quintessentially American boudoir, Perkins Harnly actually painted a room in the boarding house where he lived and which he claimed was once the home of actress Lillian Russell. The concoction he had dreamed up was half real and half invented, a Victorian vision of lavish opulence, brimming with carpets, curtains, books and an impressive selection of bibliots. Every surface is teeming with faithfully reproduced objects, a meticulousness that simultaneously fulfills his federal mandate and gives free rein to his wild imagination.
That index did a good job of compiling American tastes for the products and influences from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Finding a genuine vernacular was less successful. But when it failed, it failed magnificently, amassing 18,257 images of idiosyncratic and sometimes eloquent objects. Perhaps the most telling editorial move was the decision to completely ignore Native American design and treat the continent’s rich traditions of carpets, beadwork, sewing, jewelry and body art as if they never existed.
This curatorial team will not repeat such a mistake. They are more interested in the way ornament travels along trade routes, tourism, slavery and migration, and in motifs that skip cultures without revealing their origins. The colorful amoeba pattern we call Paisley is named after a Scottish town that specializes in machine-made versions of designs that originated in Cashmere. Two pieces of evidence are duly presented to us: an intricate 1880 design for a shawl that would have been handwoven in present-day Pakistan, and a cruder English watercolor intended for industrial production.
Here the curators pause to refer to fashionable concepts of authenticity and appropriation. Colonial designers and engineers, they suspect, stole cultural artifacts from across the empire, turning them into profits and robbing skilled artisans of their ancient livelihoods. That’s true, but it’s missing a few parts of the story. The British Empire primarily created a huge market for cashmere scarves; India’s artisans fell victim to the same forces of mechanization that afflicted weavers in Britain. Each ornament starts locally, but is not immune to the global forces of technology and business.
For a show about noise shouting is oddly muted, with works on paper substituting the three-dimensional experience of buildings, houses, and costumes. Architects once trained by drawing classical ornament; A garland by Louis Sullivan and several sketches by Piranesi for a mantel remind us that the hand that signed a piece of paper sometimes made a city build.
The show is also downright uncomfortable for an exploration of sensuality. The designers, London-based Studio Frith, seem to have forgotten the actual viewers, forcing us to bend, slouch or squint to read text, and scattering objects and wall panels in such a confusing way that it can be difficult to to say what belongs to whom.
Nevertheless, the exhibition makes it clear how indispensable Loos’ supposed superfluous really is. Our brains perceive the symmetries in nature’s apparent randomness and we look for patterns to position ourselves and reduce fear. In a way, the theorists debating whether ornament is progressive or atavistic were both right: we decorate to soar and survive.
Until 18.09. drawingcenter.org
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