'Decorative' -- it can be a misleading word in art

The word ''decorative'' is misleading -- especially in art criticism. It can be used to downgrade art like that of Franz Marc and Fernand Leger merely for being flattened out and richly patterned. And it can be called upon to deride certain paintings for being shallow and merely pleasant when they actually only utilize decorative elements to provoke deeper and more primal responses.

Thus, Matisse's art, especially his late paper cutouts, has been denigrated by some as being merely pleasing-to-the-eye, thus decorative, although it is actually profoundly expressive and life-saturated. Any number of powerful, innovative, and complex 20th-century painters, from the Russian constructivists, to Milton Avery, to such recent figures as Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Zakanitch, have been described as essentially decorative in intent.

Such confusion is more apparent now than ever before because of the increasing number of painters whose strictly frontal and patterned imagery makes full and dramatic use of decorative principles and whose work, as a result, often looks more like wallpaper, or even upended rugs, than any traditional form of painting.

Among the most rewarding of these ''pattern-painters'' is Harry Koursaros, an exhibition of whose recent canvases is on view at the Haber Theodore Gallery here.

Without doubt, these handsome and highly provocative paintings are art, and not decoration or design. They are too alive, too stimulating, to function as either of the latter. Their all-over patterning and tightly controlled repetitive designs, while crucial to their pictorial identity, are intended to incite intellectual as well as aesthetic response, not to lull the sensibilities , as would be the case with decoration. Their precise and lovingly defined details - tiny pictographs of men, women, plants, animals, and aquatic life - make reference to classical antiquity, most especially to images found on Minoan and Cycladic pottery. Thus they add a dimension of thematic complexity and significance.

The color in Koursaros's paintings is rich, generally compartmentalized, and often glowing, with the total effect being one of iridescence and spatial ambiguity. This is extremely sophisticated art. Its brilliant effects beautifully illustrate our current freedom to borrow from all previous styles - even from the often maligned decorative arts of age-old cultures. It also represents one artist's sensitive and judicious integration of such borrowings into an extraordinarily alive and ''modern'' pictorial statement.

The show is at the Haber Theodore Gallery through Nov. 28.

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