If these pretty trinkets could speak

“The Clamor of Ornament,” a dazzling new exhibit at the Painting Center, brings together nearly 200 drawings, etchings, photographs, stoles and weaves to tell a complex story, spanning five centuries, of cultural exchange and appropriation.

The curators define decoration as “an ornament, superficial or structural, that can be lifted out of context, reformulated, reproduced, and republished.” This wide-open description gives them room to include just about anything, and they do: there’s woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer from the early 16th century, a bark painting by an unknown Papua New Guinean artist, a series of black-and-white cakes and pastries drawn by painter Tom Hovey Coloring book version of “The Great British Bake Off”.

The innovative gallery design allows you to imagine these figurines and frills hopping around the world as if they were completely weightless. One of the Dürers, a mottled roundel inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of an Ottoman design, hangs next to a 1968 poster by Bob Dylan with a similar circle on his forehead; Elsewhere, in a series of watercolors and woodblock prints in the 19th century, textile patterns bounced between India, Europe, and Japan.

There’s nothing wrong with the roundness on Dylan’s forehead, of course, or with the other circles that stylist Martin Sharp has used to depict the musician’s hair. But in the nineteenth century, when such patterns were all the rage in Western Europe, they were associated with racist notions of the “East” – a fantasy created to romanticize the people these Europeans were conquering and robbing.

You can see the romance in Joseph Philibert Gérault de Prangé’s silver illusion pattern of an Egyptian mosque or in a drawing attributed to Persian court architect Mirza Akbar, the kind of intricate tilework which inspired English architect Owen Jones to write a book-length prescriptive study of artistic and architectural decoration. (Jones’ book The Rules of Decoration, published in 1856, was the inspiration for the exhibition’s title.)

“Clamor of Ornament” also provides evidence of the ruthlessness of industrialization as well as colonialism – at least as it appears in art. There is a drawing “The Red Fort, Delhi, furnished to the English taste”; Miniature Kashmiri mangoes torn apart by textile mills in the Scottish town of Paisley. The American flag that was included in the Navajo weaving that was made after the Navajo were confined to a reserve where they had to import wool. (Exposition co-curator Emily King quotes in her in-depth catalog article, economic historian Kazuo Kobayashi as saying that cotton manufactured in India “was the most important trade in exchange for African slaves.”)

You see people using expropriation to respond to persecution and cultural erasure as well. But none of these exchanges is simple. Featured here via several images, Harlem-based designer Dapper Dan pioneered a new vision of black style that borrowed corporate and fashion logos – an innovation that was later appropriated by those same companies. Artist Wendy Red Star comments on historical images of Crowe diplomats, reinterpreting the importance of feathers and hair bows that modern white Americans have underestimated and misunderstood. But this importance comes with its own kind of violence. One of the hair bows, she wrote, represented “physically overcoming an enemy and cutting off his neck.”

In the end, the exhibition makes no single argument so much as a whole bunch of them – a conceptual bustle that deepens and amplifies the already overwhelming visual experience. On the other hand, as the debate over cultural appropriation intensifies and more nuances are lost, we desperately need reminders like these of how difficult it is to separate facts from facts. On the other hand, as a visitor to the gallery, I ended up engaging in some of my own decontextualization, tuning elegant but informative wall stickers, designed by Studio Frith, and focusing instead on the sheer sensual pleasures of the air-conditioned. Gallery filled with an unusual collection of beautiful things.

Some people may be drawn to the bold colors of Emma Pettway’s Gee’s Bend (2021) quilt, Toyohara Kunichika’s 1864 woodblock series “Flowers of Edo: Five Young Men,” or a temporary wall covered in an 18th-century French pattern called “Reveillon Arabesque 810.” But I found myself drawn to the simple, monochromatic facts of John Maeda’s typographical posters. herringbone ‘tapa’ from Oceania; Or a sample of a nineteenth century scrimshaw. Barely six inches long, the chiseled bone shows a densely crossed whale surrounded by frustrated sailors as it wreaked havoc on the whaler. It was hard to consider that the entire small scene, full of drama and pathos, might just be another piece of floating decoration.

The Bustle of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present

through Sept. 18 at the Drawing Center, 35 Worcester Street, Manhattan; (212) 219-2166, Drawingcenter.org.

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