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Artist Kim MacConnel Gets His Due

Installation view, Selections from The Beach Collection, 1975–present, in the...

Credit: Pablo Mason

Above: Installation view, Selections from The Beach Collection, 1975–present, in the exhibition "Collection Applied Design: A Kim MacConnel Retrospective," Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.


Artist Kim MacConnel is getting a lot of deserved attention of late. A retrospective of his work is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and an exhibit of recent work opens at Quint Contemporary Art. We'll talk with the acclaimed artist about his career.

Artist Kim MacConnel is getting a lot of deserved attention of late. A retrospective of his work is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and an exhibit of recent work opens at Quint Contemporary Art. We'll talk with the acclaimed artist about his career.


Kim MacConnel is an artist who has been working in San Diego for 30 years. A retrospective of his work is currently on view at the La Jolla locaton of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Kim MacConnel's work is currently on view in an exhibit titled "Collection Applied Design," at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's La Jolla location. This Friday, a show of his most recent work opens at Quint Contemporary Art.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. If as one artist once told my guest, Kim McConnel, bright color is just not serious, then McConnel's work is just about the most unserious art around. Since the 1970s, the San Diego based artist's work has been filled with bold color and design. McConnel has stayed? San Diego, teaching at UCSD, and turning out works of art, including his own fabulously design the home interior. And at times coming up against an art establishment that found both color and design just a little too crafty for a gallery. Kim McConnel's work has now taken its if rightful place in the art world. Check heck and this Friday, a show of his most recent work opens at Quint contemporary art. It's a pleasure to welcome Kim McConnel to These Days. Kim, good morning.

KIM MCCONNELL: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for coming in.

KIM MCCONNELL: It's nice to be here, thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you are most associated with the pattern and decoration movement of the 1970s. I wonder how would you describe that movement?

KIM MCCONNELL: It came out of a -- an idea, principally, about declaration and its place within the hierarchy of art making, between craft at the time viewed as being the low end, and fine art the at upper end. And this was a kind of exploration built around the idea of pattern, where pattern sits within all of this. So pattern as a structure is simply what takes place within a grid formation. And that reflected on the times, particularly because minimalism as an art movement was also based on this idea of the grid, but very subtly so. And some of us were interested in extending that into not just a structural engagement, as artists, but into a social engagement in terms of what pattern might represent as a cultural form outside of this culture. Nonwestern cultures for instance.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So how do you see your work? How did it fit into this pattern and decoration movement?

KIM MCCONNELL: Well, my work at the time was interested in near eastern textiles as a source. And utilizing that pattern structure you might see in a QiLim, flat woven textile from the year east, or Ikat. It's basically -- Ikat is a weaving technique, but it applies to the kinds of things that were made in Iran and Afghanistan, and other localities in that middle eastern area.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are we talking intricate design?

KIM MCCONNELL: Sometimes, yes. My engagement was not intricate. It was very loose and in a way gestural. In part, I couldn't -- I wouldn't spend the time weaving something. It's just too much time and not enough experience. And my fingers are too large. But I was interested in trying to replicate these designs in a way that might sup plant a gestural engagement that might exist, not within minimalism, but within an art making structure that was leading to minimalism. So I was using of this kind of expressive gesture that was related to creating these pattern designs, with these sort of near eastern textiles in a context that was more engaged in western art making. So it became an argument within an arena.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, if you can tell us what these works looked like.

KIM MCCONNELL: Well, it's very simple. Just think of a repeating pattern as a length, chop it up, and reassemble it as a rectangle or of some kind. So that you might have, like a slot machine, you might have images, you might have cherry cherry cherry in a line, then suddenly there's bell, but bell is in a different line slightly off kilter. And then it repeats again at the very bottom. So it's truncated. And then you might have cherry come up again at the very end.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And were you also working with color at this time too.

KIM MCCONNELL: Yes, very much, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So the kind of bold color that we associate with Kim McConnel.

KIM MCCONNELL: Well, yes, that we now associate. Or that I new associate. Yeah, I was interested in a pure color palette rather than something that was subdued. Color was not a big issue in the late 1960s or early 1970s, for the most part. It was -- the conceptual art movement and the minimalist movement were not interested in color, and they weren't particularly interested in painting. It was more of a conceptual practice built around the idea of -- build around the idea of what? I don't know of lots and lots and lots of things. But principally, the redefinition of what an artistic activity is and what the role of the artist was.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Kim McConnell, he is a San Diego based artist and a retrospective of his art is on view at the museum of contemporary art in La Jolla. And the reason I really wanted you to go into that is the pattern and decoration movement and your work in that movement, is how it did come up against the minimalism of the time in the 1970s. Because you got some push back on that. On showing your work in -- because that just really wasn't accepted in some quarters as serious.

KIM MCCONNELL: That's right. In part because of the material I was using, I wasn't painting on stretched canvas, I was paintings on bed sheets, and tearing them up and sewing them back together again. So they looked a lot like quilts or banners or something that might be associated with quilts and banners. And that just didn't have a lot of weight. It wasn't really until a German collector who wrote a news letter for German collectors saw the work in a show that I was in Germany and was over come by it. He thought it was really brilliant for some reason. And that's when a contingent of Europeans really started looking at what we were trying to do. Particularly in my case, what I was trying to do. And found that it resonated in that area for them as a new avenue into the future, really, of what art making might be. So it was revolutionary in some ways in terms of, like, the status quo.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how did you become so interested, not only in looking at textiles for inspiration, but actually painting on textiles, painting on sheets and other kinds of fabric?

KIM MCCONNELL: Well, that's a long process of arriving at that. When I was at UCSD as both an under graduate and a graduate student, a number of courses were devoted to nonwestern engagements. Jehanne Teilhet-Fisk was an expert in Gaugin, and also taught within the visual arts department. Of and he had just called a book called shaking the pumpkin. So there was an interest in nonwestern engagements. My friend Bob Kushner and I were interested in QiLims primarily, and we would buy damaged ones and try to repair them in the hopes that we would sell them for more than we paid for them, which didn't really work out. But we were -- we were very interested in these designs in part because they seemed to reflect the same structural engagements that minimalists or New York school or any other western movement implied in creating a work. It interested us in that you could Amy it to these same textiles and it would apply. The problem was that they were nonwestern textiles. And they didn't come with -- from within this culture. So that was the battle, so to speak. To expand the boundaries of what was acceptable and interesting to a western audience.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, the title of the retrospective that is on view at the museum of contemporary art, San Diego, in La Jolla. Is collection applied design. What does that title refer to? It's the name of a book that inspired you, right.

KIM MCCONNELL: Right. It's -- in the last century there used to be these books that were called clip art.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is clip art?

KIM MCCONNELL: Well, it's something that you might use to put on your check, like, you know, your bank check that would identify your business, let's say.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see, like a logo almost.

KIM MCCONNELL: Like a logo. So there would be books of these things that would have, just these imagines and they were categorized like carpenter or car salesman, what have you. And the books that I was looking at a found in at a book store in China town in 1974, 75. And the one book I happened to pick up was a book called collection applied design. And it was filled with images, but no really categorization system. So there might be a dachshund and a bee and a hula dancer on the same page.


KIM MCCONNELL: No index. And I thought this is a very strange way it use something like this. Just like grazing for ideas and you open this book up and you go, oh, here's a good one. A dachshund. So I -- to me, it reminded me of just kind of -- of concrete poetry, really. And the other thing that I thought about with it was the idea of -- that these were idiograms just like a Chinese character sitting on a page. And you could read it right to left, left to right, top to bottom, bottom to top. And that gave me an idea that both furthered my ability to paint, my skill level, by copying these with a brush and ink. And so that's -- I started out doing that as an attempt to, like, just refine my painting skill. And it became calligraphic. So that reinforced this idea that these were idiograms. And so I started a series, and the series were simply called ten items or less. So I would have ten images on a page, exactly like the little ad book.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. And I also want to talk about the fact that you have made a number of pieces out of beach trash as well. Plastic beach trash. What got you interested in that?

KIM MCCONNELL: There used to be a lot more of it. I've always spent time on the beach suffering and such. And I would find these things that have washed up. Not sea shells but maybe some melted plastic from a boat or some object that had been floating around in the ocean for a while that had changed its appearance. And I found them kind of fascinating. And I called them plastic sea shells, essentially. And I found at one point, in 1975 I found a toy car that had been partially melted. And I found a vase, a cup, rather, and I took the toy car and I stuck it up against the cup, glued it up against the cup and called it car crash vase. And put some flowers in it, and you know, as a vase. And it made the -- what was interesting is it made the real flowers look plastic.


KIM MCCONNELL: So it was just kind of a funny joke. But anyway, I kept looking and finding more and more stuff and I just started collecting it. And --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was it a way to make a statement about the garbage that was on our shore?

KIM MCCONNELL: No, not at the time. I was just interested in the material. And I made things from it, mostly these flower vases and such. But still, it just became a collection. It was just something that you find and you keep collecting. It wasn't until 1994, I believe, that I found a use for the entire collection, which was a show I did called the age of plastic which mirrored the -- a show that appeared the work of early modernist sculptors like Picasso and mirror and Gonzalez and others that took place at the turn of the 20th century in 1918, something like this. In which it was a show built around the detritus of the industrial age building towards World War I. And 1993 or 94 when I was thinking of these things, people were starting to think about the end of the century.


KIM MCCONNELL: And I thought, what would commemorate the end of the century as a book end to the beginning? And so it would be detritus, and particularly plastic detritus, and the vast collection of it was in the ocean and on the beaches. That became the basis for this body of work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I also do want to mention before we have to leave the fact that you have decorated your home in a very distinctive way. You and your wife who is also an artist, Jean Lowe, tell us a little bit about this incredibly unique home decoration that you have.

KIM MCCONNELL: Thrift store modern. Both Jean and I have used furniture in our work over the years. And either, like, Jean's work mostly made from papier-mache are stage sets in a way for her paintings and her social and kind of political commentary. I've used furniture as a way to take painting off the wall and into the room. So our house is kind of a combination of this. Of finding things, quite literally, that seem to be interesting pieces of furniture, and painting on them. In a way that might stand alone or might interact with other pieces. So we've built an interior around the idea of a French chateau, at this point, but it's occupied with things that are very, very different than you would find in an 18th century chateau.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And there are pieces of your painted furniture on display at your retrospective. If you could just give us an idea of what people are going to be seeing in the new show opening at Quint gallery.

KIM MCCONNELL: Well, the show is titled abracadabra. And the paintings are enamel paintings on board. So they're bright and they're shiny. But it's a repeated pattern of very simple geometric shapes. And it mimics the spelling of the word abracadabra. So there might be a form that we might all A, and A would appear, A B A C A D. Much like the word. So the pieces themselves I titled as rabbits, so there's one rabbit, two rabbit, three, rabbit, as though they're being pulled out of the hat.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's fabulous. You gave a good description. But people really have to see it.

KIM MCCONNELL: Yeah, they do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KIM MCCONNELL: My pleasure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And let everyone know Kim McConnel's work is currently on view in an exhibit called selection applied design, that's at museum of contemporary art San Diego's La Jolla location and this Friday a show of his most recent work opens at Quint Contemporary Art. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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