We all know what artistic minimalism is intuitively, I think. Across painting, literature, and music, it’s when there’s… less. A sparse canvas that engages with empty space, poetry that takes economy of word choice to the extreme, and music which finds its melody and rhythm in meaningful repetition rather than compulsive variety.
The Maximalism show at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art is titled “Less is a Bore,” and it features work that reacts to the modernist trend toward the minimal. Through the work of designers such as Robert Venturi (originator of the expression used in the show’s title), who in the seventies had had enough of pared-down, simple form and desired to reignite notions of the decorative, the ornate, and the mixing of culturally diverse aesthetic sources.
What the ICA offers is a heterogenous, overstuffed show replete with paintings, murals, interior décor, plastic arts, film, dance, textiles, which are awkward, bizarre, and entirely out of place next to one another.
I mean that last sentence as a compliment, of course.
Less is a Bore: Maximalist Art & Design
Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
Bridgitt and Bruce Evans and Karen and Brian Conway Galleries
June 26–September 22, 2019
In this show, cultures collide through ornate patterns imposed upon intentionally encoded and disparate images. Miriam Schapiro’s fabric collage Mexican Memory unites bold patterns and deep greens with delicate flowers that run over the surface of her fan-shaped piece. This composition at once points out the heterogeneity of the Mexican-ness that inspires this memory and critiques the appropriation of these very motifs – the patterns, floral design, and especially the fan-shape of the overall piece –by homogenizing western conceptions of art and aesthetics. Her work, a “femmage” as she calls it, is shockingly beautiful given the dissonance of these elements.
This show is all about “elements,” as in, “how many different elements can be pushed together in this painting/textile/multimedia presentation until it reaches the borderline of the beautiful?”
These works collapse the distinction between the decorative and the essential, illustrating how the bold deployment of multiple textures and contrasting forms enrich fine art. Christopher Wool’s Untitled uses commercial relief rollers to detail his canvas, engaging with notions of authorship through his use of the decorative.
Kehinde Wiley reminds us, meanwhile, that the decorative often has as its source the representational, in her work The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte. Here, the vegetal motif of the wallpaper behind the sisters comes back to life. The plants themselves stretch from background into foreground, rebelling against the practice of flattening the decorative by blooming.
Overall, the heterogeneous nature of the show is disorienting –even off-putting – but after some thought I suppose that this is a consequence of “the Decorative” as a pell-mell category peeling off from the background. The motifs of industrially produced décor remind us in this show that snowflakes and twisting ivy are not by their nature merely decorative. By illustrating this becoming the other way around, maximalism trudges resolutely from “less is a bore” and into “more.”