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The True Colors of Kim MacConnel – Artist Studio Visit

Visiting Kim MacConnel’s artist studio and private residence was always going to be a colorful affair. How hands-on it turned out to be made a few guests step out of their comfort zone: indeed, when confronted with Kim’s painted furniture – in his very own functional living room – you literally want to take a seat and ponder (in the picture below, all chairs, sofas and tables have been painted by Kim MacConnel).

Kim MacConnel and Jean Lowe’s functional living room

Yet we’ve all wanted to get a little too close to touch the art in museums but there was always that little voice (or the museum guard’s voice!) telling you to step back.

At Kim’s house, touching the art is allowed and encouraged, making us feel right at home.

This house was turned total work of art thanks to the equally touchable art created by his wife Jean Lowe (a blog dedicated to Jean will follow).

More than a house, it is a decorative duet and an ode to Color, an entire art history conversation, right there.

Two artists putting their artistic visions towards creating their very own make-belief vie de château, in which doors are as tall as in Versailles itself, furniture is adorned with chinoiserie motifs or trompe l’oeil painted woodgrain. In the master bedroom, draperies are brushed with doves à la Braque and Matisse and even the TV cabinet is made with the decorated (here is that word again!) cardboard box the TV set came in.

As it turns out, this word, “decorative”, can be a Pandora’s box.

Peter Westlake in conversation with Kim MacConnel. Photo by @gladkitty

Kim MacConnel was “a seminal figure” of the Pattern and Decorative movement in the 70s, a movement all about painting on fabrics and using bright colors. This was all in stark contrast to Minimalist Art and Conceptual Art which were dominating at the time, making the art world all about neutral colors and industrial materials.

Kim took a full counterpoint to this macho minimalist approach. His art is certainly decorative yet no less brainy than conceptual art, for Kim’s art evokes many art history demons.

Kim MacConnel’s Studio. Photo by Nina Howard

If you think of decoration, it is invariably associated with the feminine. Interior decoration and decorative arts were realms invested by femmes fatales having a try at emancipation at the end of the 19th century.

Art Nouveau championed gesamkunstwerk (total work of art) in interiors where every surface was decorated, mostly under the guidance of women. This came on the heels of the English Arts & Crafts movement which had already tried to permeate all walks of  life, with William Morris preaching for aesthetic and handcrafted designs for everyday objects. Yet despite all efforts to whiplash and blur the lines between Decorative arts and Fine Art, to this day, “decorative” is still a word opening much debate. Think about it, is Decorative Art more Design than it is Art in your mind?

Not so much for Kim McConnel who totally owns to it because of his own blurring of the thin lines between Art and Design.

His painted chairs and sofas may be termed either/ or, yet most people encountering one of his painted seat respectfully asks permission to try it, and that small amount of reserve and reverence tells me Art trumps Design in Kim’s pieces.

One striking point of interest in Kim MacConnel’s art is recycling. And not only of furniture which he nevertheless keeps on jazzing up with colors to give them a new lifeline of expression.

In his Abracadabra series, Kim got inspired by Picasso’s 1932 Girl Before A Mirror, but only selectively, and working for memory (anecdote shared by his wife Jean).

Kim MacConnel’s Studio. Photo by Nina Howard

Where most of us viewing this masterpiece focus on the girl (Marie-Thérèse Walter) and her reflection in the mirror (aptly called a psyche and hence opening endless interpretations), Kim remembered the profusion of patterns present in the Picasso painting.

Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror (1932), Tate Modern exhibition

By isolating the patterns, they became colorful forms and motifs for Kim to arrange and alternate, writing one episode of his own art, much like Picasso before him inspired himself from African masks and came up with a radically new artistic expression: The Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Cubism.

Kim MacConnel in his Studio.

In my view, what Kim does here is not so much recycling of art historical motifs as up-cycling, generating a new vocabulary and artistic language in this beautification process.

This brought back to mind the excellent BBC Reith lectures Grayson Perry gave in 2013. Grayson Perry, ever-so talented cross dresser, self-declared “mad potter” artist, indeed evoked Decorative art as still being a derogative qualifier, at worst an insult. Yet Grayson Perry swiftly followed by questioning the gentrification trends observed in disaffected downtown areas all around large cities. He talked about the idea that artists ought to be paid to open their studios and live in these cheaper locations since artists “sprinkle the fairy dust of authenticity” that makes people catch on and want to move to said previously neglected areas.

This recycling theme, of spaces, materials but also of art historical motifs and ideas, pushes through this idea of beautification that I think is very dear and very clear in Kim MacConnel’s art.

Furniture may be made of cardboard boxes but when painted with colorful or historically charged designs, the ornament seduces the eye while giving an optical illusion of colorful riches. Such style appears more aligned with current preoccupations of social conscience and recycling, while making past decorative motifs an art embellishing in a very democratic way.

Kim’s is an art you can touch and seat on, demystifying the elitist feel of art. It is Art that is easy to live with and makes you want to live with more art, not less.

Who would not want to live a life as Total Work of Art?

My full gratitude to artists Kim MacConnel and Jean Lowe who opened their house and studios to me and my group of lucky few art lovers and philanthropists who had bid on this Art Experience organized by yours truly and Quint Gallery.

© 2019 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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