Repeat patterns, part II – Catherine Jones

majolica jar (detail)

[ceramic jug, Florentine area, circa 1450-1500, detail from image in Italian Maiolica: catalogue of the collections by Catherine Hess, published by the Getty Museum]

Last month I wrote about repeat patterns of the kind found on
wallpaper and printed yardage: strictly repeating designs that could,
in theory, be extended to cover a flat surface of arbitrarily large
size. I argued that artists could find lots of room for
self-expression even within the strict mathematical grid of such
designs. I’d planned, after making this point, to broaden the
discussion and talk about other, less restrictive, kinds of repeating
design. And then, after exploring those looser kinds of pattern, I’d
meant to give some examples of how repetition functions in art
generally. I care about art in general, not just about yardage and

But a short comment on last month’s article stopped me in my tracks.
The comment took up the question of what best shows an artist’s
talent: large repeats, small repeats, or free non-repeating design. I
replied privately off the top of my head, but realized later that I
don’t have an answer. It all depends on what we define as an artist’s
talent. Drawing skill? Painterly rendering skill? A gift for narrative
(hard to express, maybe, in small repeats)? A flair for managing color
and composition? And what about mathematical skill, intuitive or
explicit? The math underlying repeat patterns is no trivial subject;
there’s a 700-page classic book (Tilings and Patterns by Grunbaum and
Shephard) that still doesn’t cover it all. Rather than do special
pleading for one kind of talent or another, I’m going to leap ahead to
the general topic of pattern in art.

The majolica jug pictured above seems to me a good example of pattern
and non-pattern working happily together. Seen alone, the face might
be merely grotesque: an unwelcome reminder of the perils of aging and/or thin
blue brushstrokes run amok. We’d laugh or grimace back at the
sour-looking face and then move on. But the decorative surrounding
changes everything. The fluid dark blue plant form repeated left and
right of the face balances the fluid light blue wrinkle lines. The
yellowish band encircling the portrait medallion confines the grotesque to
a safely bounded space. And the strip of repeat pattern in white and
green on purple adds color and beauty to the whole.

majolica plate

[ceramic plate, Deruta, Italy, circa 1515-20, detail from image in Islamic Pottery and Italian Maiolica: Illustrated Catalogue of a Private Collection by Bernard Rackham]

A similar marriage of single image and repeat patterns occurs in the
later and slicker majolica plate from Deruta. In this case the face
conforms to pleasing conventions of the time. It’s blander, more
decorative, and more of a piece with its surroundings than the face in
the medallion on the jug. The majolica plate appeals to me mostly for
its graceful integration of different kinds of repeat pattern.

There’s a purely abstract strip pattern of small oval forms that
appears several times in the plate’s rim. And also an abstract pattern
of scales that looks as if it could extend to cover the whole plane.
Then there’s a smaller, less abstract pattern of scales in the inner
rim; it looks more like real snake skin. The star pattern surrounding
the portrait reads to me as real stars. And the symmetrical image with
arabesques in the outer rim (an image that repeats three times on the
plate as a whole) seems to me to be based on real leaves and flowers.
Amazingly, all these elements work together. There’s an easy
progression from the purely abstract ovals to the scales and stars to
the foliage and then on to the stylized features of the woman and the
semi-realistic rendering of her head covering.


[John Muafangejo, Oniipa New Printing Press and Book Depot on 11 May, 1975, lino-cut on paper, image from The African Dream Visions of Love and Sorrow: the art of John Muafangejo by Orde Levinson]

John Muafangejo, working centuries later in a mixed African and
European mode that he pretty much developed for himself, creates a
single image sitting above a block of text. Instead of using repeat
patterns to frame a pictorial scene, he devises repeats within the
scene itself. The lino-cut above is an example of this approach. It
shows the opening of a new printing facility – the previous building
and the books and presses it housed having been destroyed under cover
of night by an unidentified arsonist that Muafangejo refers to in the
text as “Master Nobody.”

The audience at the opening ceremony appears as a multitude of stylized
facial profiles, rendered mostly in white lines on black, though
sometimes in black lines on white. The size of the audience and its
multi-racial character (with black-on-white profiles sprinkled around
among white-on-black) may reflect the artist’s hopes for the new
press. Whatever its narrative meaning – I won’t speculate, as I’m too
ignorant – the audience functions beautifully as a repeat pattern
ingeniously integrated into a landscape. So does the Muafangejo’s
white-on-black text at the bottom of the print.


[Nu nono mor, tabgala nono: heads of pigeons or herons, detail from photo by Michel Perrin reproduced in his book Magnificent Molas: the art of the Kuna Indians]

According to Michel Perrin, the scholar and photographer responsible
for the astounding book Magnificent Molas, the mola from which the
above detail is taken was “universally appreciated by the Kuna.” It
shows, I think, a perfect union of subject and background and of
decorative and pictorial effort. The repeating yellow bars of the
background flow without awkwardness into negative space left by the
curving lines that outline repeating necks, heads, and beaks. Each
part of the composition works seamlessly with each other part. It’s
hard to say where representation ends and pure abstract pattern


[Edwin and Mary Scheier, Judgment of Solomon, stoneware plate, 1948, detail of image in Great Pots: contemporary ceramics from function to fantasy by Ulysses Grant Dietz]

The Judgment of Solomon plate was made by artists living in New
Hampshire during the era of American abstract expressionism. I’ve
included it as yet another example of multiple almost-repeats all
working together within a single image. The plate contains two
textures (the dots inside Solomon and his crown and the background
scratches everywhere else) that could almost qualify as small-scale
repeats. Furthermore, the points on the crown neatly mirror the nose,
lips, and chin of the king’s profile. And, more importantly, the two
women fighting inside Solomon’s head mirror each other in gesture and
posture. This repetition – the seeming similarity of the two
contenders for the baby – underlines the difficulty of Solomon’s
decision. This repetition, I think, works both aesthetically and as an
aid in telling the story.


[Keith Haring, sketchbook, detail of image from Keith Haring: future primeval, catalog of exhibition produced by University Galleries of Illinois State University]

Having tried to suggest the relevance of pattern (small-scale
textures, mirror symmetries, bands of ornament, overall designs –
every kind of repeat and near repeat) to art in general, I want next
month to talk about something else. Any discussion of regular repeat
patterns brings up, sooner or later, the mathematical scaffolding that
may or may not underlie them. I’m not an enthusiast of math
masquerading as art. Nor am I much impressed with what’s sometimes
called algorithmic art – imagery generated by computer procedures
without reference to art history and without active intervention by
the artist at every stage of the creative process. But I have spent
some time negotiating the cultural gap that separates people who write
software for making images from what I think of as the mainstream
fine-art community. The gap in itself is intriguing and, I think,
worth writing about.

Why the image of Keith Haring’s sketchbook? Because it illustrates
writing and personal hieroglyphics as pattern. And also because it
superimposes pattern over pattern; we see multiple copies of his
signature baby (known as the “radiant child”) crawling along the lower
margin of the pages. We also see a repeat pattern representing the
computer keyboard – gateway to a machine that truly came of age in the
decade when Haring did his mature work. I wish he were still here to
help us make sense of our world and its art and technology. More on
that next month…


4 Responses to “Repeat patterns, part II – Catherine Jones”

  1. 1 Angela Moll May 4, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    Catherine, so good to read you second post on repeat pattern!

    I use to paint yardage by systematically repeating a mark with one color, one tool, by hand, all over the fabric. Then another mark, another color and tool, and so on until the fabric was completed.
    It use to fascinate me how now matter how irregular I tried to be, once I was in the flow I always produced perfectly regular repeat patterns. What it is about repeats that seems to be deeply ingrained in the human mind? Or is it only in mine?

    I like how you expand the notion of repeat to refer to a variety of forms of repetition in this post. The interaction between the figures in the foreground and the repeat in the frame or the background suggests to me a way I could’ve escaped the dominance of repeat pattern back in my time of painting yardage. Interesting how most of your examples are either folk art or are close to folk roots.

  2. 2 June April 15, 2008 at 9:00 am


    I am always humbled to discover that I’ve dummied down, in my own mind, a concept that has rich possibilities. That’s what happened to me with patterning and repeats. I tended to think “printed fabric” rather than “open your eyes and see.”

    In some ways, I think, that what I call the “dummying down” has to do with a kind of stereotyping of medium — painterly means slosh; textiles mean stiff — something like that. This dummying down easy to do — instructors who talk about being faithful to the medium often have unspoken ideas about what the medium consists of. I usually try to quell my argumentative side and listen to them, but that too has its limitations.

    I am trying to concentrate on space and shadows in my painting — now I’ll have to expand my awareness to pattern. So much to learn, so little time — and so much fun.

  3. 3 catherine April 15, 2008 at 6:19 am


    Maybe you already are playing with repeats. Look at all those rectangles (windows of buildings and trucks) in the paintings you posted in your article on critiques!

  4. 4 June April 13, 2008 at 5:50 pm


    You are making me think perhaps I should take up repeats — your analysis of possibilities is far more extensive than I had realized was possible. Thanks

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