For Adolf Loos, objects which lacked the autonomy and industrial qualities he associated with contemporaneity were "full of references to abstract things, full of symbols and memories. They are medieval."1 The paintings by Elizabeth Pulie recently installed in Sutton Gallery also link the pre-modern with the Middle Ages, challenging notions of decorative design and its relation to abstract painting. Elizabethan Gold is a suite of heraldic designs painted in gold liquid leaf on deep crimson, green and blue and installed in a tableau reminiscent of a 19th century salon hang. Pinned to cover one wall of the smaller gallery are pages of a repeated gold and black daisy pattern entitled William Morris Gold. Central to the connection Pulie makes between these two sections is Morris's conception of the medieval arts as one source for design but more importantly as the origin of his philosophy for 19th century artist-craftsmen, a vision of medieval society as egalitarian and communal and the source of a living spiritual and artistic tradition.
In her literal taking of various motifs and styles as found designs for her practice, Pulie situates her paintings at one end of a conglomeration of histories. Her motifs are the types dismissed as ornamentation by the male "pioneers" of modern design in the twentieth century, men whose definitions of "honesty" and "morals" were at odds with the adherents of the Arts and Craft movement. Antithetical to the modernist project of reductivism and simplification, the practice and definition of decoration, ornament, design and pattern became embroiled in the subjective vocabulary of taste, with its baggage of contradictions; authentic/debased, tradition/corruption, integrity/vulgarity, fine art/craft. Pulie and Morris connect across the modernist despair of decoration; Morris's practice as a retort against the sham materials and mechanical routine involved in the multiples of industrial production meets Pulie's hand-painted wall-paper, an even less viable commercial proposition the was Morris's.
Combining handwork with the services of a photocopier in Morris Gold Pulie has subverted Morris's abhorrence of industrial and machine production in lieu of the handmade but she works in sympathy with his idea that the machine should function to free the worker from drudgery. She joins with Morris in critiquing the system of art production and consumption, seducing the home decorator with a penchant for floral interiors. Watch out for her individually produced daisy panels in the commerce-driven ' Home' designer liftouts of our daily newspapers.
Pattern is woven into the social fabric of the artistic and commercial spheres. Elizabeth Gold consists of samplers from the imperial reign of the Motherland, redolent with power and class divisions. Loos "symbols and memories" are the histories and traditions of design and ornament that provide mythical or social character beyond pure decoration. In both the social and the decorative, Pulie's installations cannot rest comfortably, being both regal and domestic yet honest and outrageous in terms of their corruption of 'original' sources.
In applying her traditional craft, Pulie places her work in the realms of culture, taste and commerce, reflecting on their relevance across public and private economies. What is being produced, exchanged and accumulated within this index of gold? Her pre-industrial and post-industrial references have implications for contemporary political and moral histories, in particular British colonisation and the associated social and cultural importation and dependence that came with the project of 'modernisation'. The heritage that Pulie re-presents is now a state-sponsored tourist industry representing the romanticised symbols of Ol' Blighty, a reminder of that old euphemism; all that glitters is not gold.
1. Adolf Loos, "Review of the Arts and Crafts" in Spoken into the Void, Collected Essays 1897-1900, Jane O. Newman and John M. Smith (trans). MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982, p.104.