There has been a decorative turn in some recent British art. Artists such as Jackson Sprague and the Granchester Pottery (Phil Root and Giles Round) have been riffing on a particular strand of decorative Modernism. One can read such tendencies as a reaction to the neoconceptual work that has dominated recent artistic discourse. The ‘decorative’, of course, has had a fraught relationship with art history, and like these peers, Ruairiadh O’Connell, in this compact solo exhibition, explores both the conceptual and cosmetic.
I’m reminded variously of Omega workshop designs, public-transport seating and my grandma’s carpet
The exhibition brings together a new body of works without titles (not even the conventional Untitled), and is accompanied by an oblique text taken from an email exchange between the artist and his former art professor at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, Judith Hopf, discussing cocktails. Cumulatively, the works recall decorated satellite dishes; on closer inspection their profiles are in fact lifted from commercial aircraft windows. The artist has mixed brightly coloured pigment with rubber and embellished the surface by scoring it when still wet. Alongside Aztec and tessellated patterns are simple botanical motifs. I’m reminded variously of Omega workshop designs, public-transport seating and my grandma’s carpet. The colour combinations – lemon-yellow and white, or orange and ultramarine – veer between delicate and garish. The works are installed on freestanding metal armatures and anchored off the galley walls.
There is a notion of the promiscuous nature of aesthetics, tracing the trajectory of particular motifs from artists’ studios to fashion houses and, finally, to the mass market. We might look to the entangled genealogies of Op art as an example of mass adoption of avant-garde tropes: the perceptual and formal rigour of Bridget Riley became quickly adopted by the Mod generation, who were keen to express their radicalism through bold styling. O’Connell is interested in these forms of translation – questioning, for instance, why the imperfect line of the artisan is retained in mass-produced design. He inverts this process by reinscribing the artist’s hand into commercial patterning, transforming industrial products back into a unique object.
Chris Maluszynski’s recent photographic series exploring garish Las Vegas casino carpets illustrates the attempts to manipulate social environment by the use of excessive patterning. There have been various semiacademic research claims that all those jarring colours and flora act as a visual Lucozade to keep gamblers awake and spending; O’Connell’s work also interrogates these subtle uses (and abuses) of aesthetics. We fall for patterns quickly and unconsciously; the wonky artisanal patterning of machine-made fabrics can be used to disguise the fact that the human hand has been almost entirely evacuated from its production. Ideologies can be camouflaged and behaviour subtly altered through the canny deployment of design. O’Connell understands that sometimes the best way to conceal something is to hide it in plain sight.
This review originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.