Ellen Harvey: Ornaments and Other Refrigerator Magnets

Children’s Museum of the Arts, New York
December 17, 2017 – April 29, 2018

What is an ornament and how is ornamentation different from art? Is the desire to ornament our surroundings and possessions an innate human trait?  If so, why is children’s art generally representational rather than ornamental? What is the relationship between ornamentation and abstraction?  Is contemporary ornament inherently nostalgic or reactionary? Why is “ornamental” generally a pejorative term when applied to contemporary art? What is the relationship between ornamentation and the traditional projection of power? What does it mean when our public spaces are stripped of ornament but filled with advertising instead? 

These are just some of the questions explored in Ellen Harvey’s new exhibition Ornaments and Other Refrigerator Magnets, which brings together a selection of Harvey’s new and recent works that use ornamentation as a starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of the uses, abuses and relevance of the human desire to ornament.

Much of Harvey’s recent work on ornamentation has been inspired by the extraordinary collection of over 6,000 antique wooden molds used by the American Wood Column Corporation in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, which was founded in 1916 by the grandfather of the current owner, Mr. Thomas Lupo. These molds, many of which are originally from the U.K. and date back to the late 18th Century, are used to cast architectural ornaments by filling them with a mixture of sawdust and glue. The resulting ornaments (depicted in Mr. Lupo’s Collection) would then be glued onto interiors and painted to create decorative compositions. As the photographs of the dilapidated boards of ornament suggest, this kind of hand-made ornamentation is a dying art, due not just to the labor-intensive nature of its production, but also to changes in taste.

Many of the ornaments in the collection are abstracted versions of natural forms which have been simplified to function as decorative elements. Two Forests explicitly contrasts the leaf ornaments from the collection with an attempt to paint an actual forest full of leaves. The contrast between the two systems of representation serves primarily to underline the inadequacy of hand-made representations compared to the complexity of the natural world.  Similarly, the light-hearted Floral Wallpaper Experiment, which was created expressly for this exhibition, contrasts the drawings of plants by children from the Children’s Museum of the Arts’ collection with the traditionally stylized plants used in 18th Century wallpaper. Here both depictions are radically simplified but in the case of the children’s drawings the intent is to create a schematic description of the world rather than an ornamental scheme. The tiny doll house mirrors light-heartedly sprinkled over the hugely blown-up wallpaper serve to remind viewers of the traditional hierarchy of art, where the applied arts are subservient to the fine arts. No matter how lovely, wallpaper’s function is to provide a physical context for art; it is not art itself.  In contrast, in Hermitage Ornament, an oil painting of the gilded decorations in the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum is messily inserted into a contemporary ornamental frame, creating an uncanny hybrid of the mass produced and the hand-made, of art and ornament.

The question of how ornamentation differs from art is also raised in Metal Painting for Dr. Barnes (originally commissioned for the Barnes Foundation) which consists of silhouette portraits of the over 800 pieces of metalwork which Dr. Barnes interspersed throughout his highly idiosyncratic hanging of his collection. Dr. Barnes always maintained that these decorative but functional metal works by anonymous craftsmen were just as worthy as admiration as the famous impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in his collection.  Harvey’s version pivots the viewer’s attention from the paintings to the metalwork and the aesthetic decisions made by the artisans. Unlike the Barnes collection, which the terms of Dr. Barnes’ will famously forbid from ever being rearranged, Metal Painting is different each time that it is shown. The paintings are all magnetized and their arrangement on the steel panels varies each time the piece is exhibited. The contrast between Barnes’ playful handmade metalwork and industrial mass production inspired the adjacent Mass Produced, which inserts contemporary industrial versions of the metal hinges and locks collected by Dr. Barnes into a spray-painted ornate plastic frame. Here the artist functions much as Dr. Barnes did, as a collector and arranger, underscoring the ways in which Barnes’ decorative schemes resemble the “found art” of today.

The loss of ornament resulting from industrialization went hand in hand with modernism’s explicit rejection of ornament as a public good. Criminal Library pairs books that explicitly code ornamentation as evil or reactionary (starting with Adolf Loos’ seminal Ornament and Crime) with highly ornamented pedestals. This traditional coupling of ornament with power is further explored in All That Glitters, which takes the proverb “all that glitters is not gold” as a starting point for an examination of the ways in which ornamentation has traditionally been used to project political power: a collection of mirrors reflect identically shaped gold panels that have placed over images of some of the highly ornamented interiors inhabited by the world’s most powerful people to create an endlessly self-reflecting apotheosis of “dictator chic.”  By contrast to this “naughty corner”, Walk-In democratizes the use of ornament by allowing visitors to insert themselves into the kind of decorative interior that signified status in old-fashioned portraits. The incongruity of this traditional use of ornament when applied to contemporary life is explored in Home Decoration Confusion, which takes a mid-century dolls house and fills it with photographs of the ornamental schemes of some of the world’s great palaces and with tiny doll house chandeliers, creating a sense of radical disconnect between the modernist simplicity of the exterior and the excess and complexity of the interior. The adjacent Bling House is a model of a similarly plain modernist home which has been bedazzled and turned on its side.  Both houses also explore the degree the desire to decorate has been coded as essentially childish or feminine. Lastly, Ornaments for the Subway, takes the advertising posters with which we now decorate much of our public space and colonizes them with individual cast ornaments from the American Column Company, making a case for public ornamentation as a revolutionary act in a capitalist society where the public’s only sanctioned function is consumption. Here the ornaments have taken over, staking a radical claim for the importance of beautiful uselessness, for the importance of caring enough for public space to decorate it. Ornamentation as an act of love.