July 21, 2022
An Exhibition at Manhattan’s Drawing Center Cultivates a Gloriously Unruly History of Ornament
Adapted from Owen Jones’ 1856 design opus The Grammar of Ornament, the show’s title revives a history of ornament as theorized by European architects in the second half of the 19th century. Occupied with orders and principles, these texts mobilized visual comparisons of adornment to advance arguments on cultural differences. Moving beyond a methodology governed by rules and categories was paramount for Dr. King; commenting on the scope of the exhibition, she remarked, “this idea that you make it more inclusive, but still keep that structure, it just seemed completely untenable.”
Like its predecessors, The Clamor of Ornament remains concerned with the social aspects of design, but it presents the material with explicit aims to do away with hierarchies and unsettle presumptions around ownership and taste. The curatorial and design team employs numerous strategies: saturated and wallpapered walls undermine the so-called neutral context of the white cube while merrily enhancing the space; works by the same maker reappear in multiple contexts; narratives of cultural exchange and collisions underpin groupings of objects.
The exhibition tackles power imbalances, exclusions, and erasures with refreshing specificity. A cluster of alluring illustrations produced for the Index of American Design (1935-1942) features an outlier: a screenprint by Louie Ewing of a Navajo blanket from the same period was produced independently; as the wall text explains, this government-funded index excluded indigenous designs despite aims to establish a comprehensive catalog of craft idioms and objects across the United States. Other moments redefine the terms of cultural heritage: a description accompanying lush floral patterns by British Arts & Crafts Movement designers relocates this regional design campaign amid international influence from Islamic and Asian iconography found on objects acquired during colonial trade. More contemporary highlights include a section detailing Dapper Dan’s appropriation of luxury goods logos alongside Wendy Red Star’s annotated photographs describing the cultural significance of bodily ornament sported by Native leaders.
For all this range, Dr. King acknowledges that gaps were unavoidable; however, as she explained, “It’s not about being definitive, it’s about creating a way of seeing the world that expands.” This expansive view extends to the exhibition programming. Notably, “Sweet Series,” a trio of lectures by artist and baker Edward Cabral, unpacks the enduring affinities between decoration and dessert. Cabral, who specializes in a traditional cake icing method called English overpiping, was impressed that the Drawing Center was up to tackling the not-so-sweet side of the culinary arts, namely the abuses of the sugar trade. Mirroring the ethos of the exhibition, which finds relevance and revelations in the patterns of the past, Cabral observed, “That’s why I move so far back, because for me, that becomes a means to move far ahead.”
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