New Dimensions: Surface

August 10-October 7, 1979

Pauline A. Saliga, Assistant Curator

During the 1970s a style of painting has developed which, through lively fields of pattern of rich painterly texture, directs attention to the sensual potential of the painting surface. Some of the work has been fit into the designation “Pattern Painting,” some of it less easily categorized, but all of the work shares the influence of a wide variety of both artist and cultural sources including Abstract Expressionist painting, Color Field painting, Minimal Art, Third World Art, Eastern philosophies, and the Women’s Movement. New Dimensions: Surface examines the current interest in accentuating the painting surface through the work of the two of the few Chicago –area artists concerned directly and specifically with the painting surface – Susan Michod and Nancy Davidson. Michod paints large, densely patterned canvases, and Davidson constructs large site-specific works that combine rubbing, drawing and painting techniques.

Susan Michod paints interwoven fields of figures and pattern through a stamping process. Using a small block of balsa wood, Michod repeatedly and systematically imprints a trapezoidal shape on a large unstretched canvas. By varying the arrangements of the trapezoids, the intervals between them, and the color, Michod is able to bring together in a single canvas a wide variety of patterns such as stripes, zig-zags, and lattices as well as stylized objects such as kites, paper dolls, lighting bolts and animals.

Based on a loosely structured grid, the works ultimately refer to weaving, the origin of al pattern of grids. Using many of formal characteristics of “Pattern Painting” – flat fields of dense pattern, rich color, acentric and nonhierarchic composition* - Michod composes visually complex, often humorous works, Sun Run, 1979 and Green Frog, 1978, have borders of light hearted geometric figures including frogs, stars and zig-zag snakes, while the interiors are composed of chevron, arrow and triangular patterns. Michod’s most recent work, Lattice Play, 1979, is made with stencils based on trapezoidal shape of the wooden stamp used in her other works. Lattice Play, painted in lush, verdant colors, is broken down roughly into three patterned triangular areas that interact with the lattice fields creating an ambiguous play between figure and ground. Michod relies on the uneven texture of the stamped paint, allover pattern and rich and varied palette to draw attention to the surfaces of her works.

Nancy Davidson shares with Michod an interest in the physicality of the painting surface. Using frottage (rubbing) Davidson transfers the pattern of a wooden floor to painted paper, which she cuts into quadralateral wedges. She then paints the wedges further and arranges them to form two asymmetrical fan, arc or S-shaped figures that stretch from floor to ceiling and float in the field of the wall. Davidson is also concerned with architectural space and installs her works so they interact directly with the space that houses them. For example, “Tropos” for S. L., 1979, was planned for a long narrow space in which opposite ends cannot be viewed simultaneously. The two parts of “Tropos,” positioned at opposite ends of the space, act as a perceptual link to visually unite the long space through peripheral vision. Like Davidson’s other recent works, the bold outline of “Tropos” provides strong visual impact, while the other interior space, composed of repetitive texture and areas of bright color, draws the viewer in to more closely examine the sensuous surface. Davidson relies heavily on rich, jewel-like shades of purple, red, gold and turquoise that flicker across the surfaces of her works to draw attention to the sensuality of those surfaces.

Because both Michod and Davidson rely on processes of transference to achieve the surface characteristics of their work - Michod through stamping and stenciling, and Davidson through rubbing – both allow accidental effects to occur in their work. Michod’s wooden stamp transfers paint unpredictably and unevenly, so the resulting painting is covered with a rich, variegated texture. Likewise, by taking rubbings from the floor, Davidson accepts the effects that will occur in her work as a result of irregularities in the particular floor’s surface. Their acceptance of accidental effects and their use of certain formal characteristics such as nonhierarchic composition, flat picture plane, repetition, reflect a distinctly non-Western attitude. Just as late nineteenth century art was influenced by Japanese prints and both Cubism and expressionism owe a debt to the art of primitive cultures, Michod and Davidson reflect the widespread Western acceptance of Eastern art and philosophies (especially the Japanese esthetic) that has taken place during the last 15 years.

Not only the art and philosophies of the East, but also the decorative arts and architecture of the Third World cultures have influenced both Michod and Davidson. Michod has researched Guatemalan weaving to determine how through color and compositional arrangement the weavers create nonhierarchical balance between geometricized figures and pattern. Davidson’s link to other cultures is less direct and is based on her intuitive responses to massive architecture, specifically Mayan pyramids and modern skyscrapers. Michod and Davidson also have drawn upon developments in recent American art, such as the allover compositional arrangement I n Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings, the sense of cosmic space in Color Field painting, the grid in Minimal Art. However, like other artists who share their artistic concerns, Michod and Davidson modify and adapt the influences to accommodate the visual complexity and sensuality of their surface oriented work.

Both historically conscious yet innovative, Michod and Davidson bring together a wide variety of influences, synthesize them, and make a unique statement about painting. Working within the context of installation, Davidson’s works on paper are concerned with both painting and architecture. Combining colored pattern on an unstretched canvas, Michod’s work reflects the decorative arts that are its source. Perceptually and conceptually the paintings work on many levels, and together they point to the great potential of contemporary installation and easel painting.

Assistant Curator


*John Perreault, “Issues in Pattern Painting,”
Artforum, Dec. 1976, p. 26.