P&D at MOCA, an eye-opening exhibit

Once confused, twice blown away and finally, AHA!  An epiphany!

I had not intended to visit MOCA’s exhibit, “With Pleasure,” because it offered art inspired by pattern and decoration, things seen in crafts, on commercial products, wall paper and fabric.  These are the lesser arts, I thought, and not as exciting as the installations and pointed artistic statements in this Museum of Contemporary Art. But I was wrong.  

Decades ago in Honolulu, I grew up surrounded by Japanese images and patterns in everyday life.  On playing cards, dishes and kimonos, bright flowers, fish and geometric shapes danced in our hands, before our eyes and in my memory.  But when I studied Asian history in college, this “lesser tradition” fell by the wayside. Instead, the classes focused on scroll paintings, Zen inspired gardens and poetry, all peacefully minimal. 

When the Broad Museum opened on Grand Avenue in DTLA, I was blown away by “In the Land of the Dead,” a painting by Takashi Murakami that seemed to cover half the room.  It was bright, disturbing and cartoonish, with references to recent and historical disasters that have been suffered in Japan. It was not the lone pine tree or the graceful carp, but bright clothing, seething waves, people and animals.  I was captivated and confused. Where did this bright colorful, charismatic art come from?

This month I found myself blown away again but at MOCA (across the street from the Broad).  Walking through “With Pleasure, Pattern and Decoration in American Art,” my visual confusion ended and some things began to fall into place. “With Pleasure” is full of gorgeous painting, sculpture, installations full of whimsy and comfort.  And the curators and the artists offered food for thought when they defended their art from the modernist notion that craft and feminine decoration was inferior to “fine art.” They argue that sexist and racist assumptions had crept into these historical discussions of western art.  And it created a lens through which I viewed the images and designs of my childhood. It startled me to know that assumptions that “underlay western art historical discourse” could have infiltrated my thinking.   

In Japan, artists like Takako Yamaguchi knew of no such distinction between pattern and decoration and “fine art.”  When she came to the United States to study, she was taken aback by the notion that all Japanese art was minimal. In fact, in her experience, Japanese art is highly decorative, complex and designed to please.  Her painting, “Magificat #6,” is her answer to the notion that Japanese art eschews beauty, decoration and complexity.

It was her piece (above) that made me stop and think.  And made me realize how much I had fallen into this way of looking at things. Traditional Japanese art, not the everyday decorative themes, had indeed framed my viewpoint, especially when I took out my camera to look at and photograph nature.   

Above, the first and third images are traditional Japanese scrolls. The second and fourth are my photographs that follow this tradition. When I shot these images, I was not consciously trying to replicate Japanese themes or to honor traditional Japanese art. But there it was, fresh out of a western art history class, I now realized. If all this influenced the way I saw the world, did it also shade the way I think about the world?

It was an epiphany.  If sexist, racist and colonial assumptions had shaped the way I reacted to the visual world, maybe it is time to open up the lenses to look instead for complexity, maximalism and egalitarian themes.

P&D is on view at MOCA until May 18, 2020.  Admission to the museum is free and on weekends there are free guided tours.  Don’t miss this exhibit folks! (For a full review, see Christopher Knight, Review: More is more. Why the ‘Pattern and Decoration’ show at MOCA is pure pleasure)

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