Pattern Recognition, currently on view at Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, focuses primarily on the paradox of explaining abstract painting. Though designed as a straightforward, contemporary group show featuring new work from established artists, Pattern Recognition must be viewed within the context of a museum whose focus is on community dialogue and education.
The hand of Dexter Wimberly, the independent curator behind the exhibition, is explicit throughout the display; he is present both in the descriptive and theoretical wall texts that flank each work and in the one-on-one video interviews that provide insight into each artist’s practice. His eagerness to provide extensive background, explanation, and context for the works is further evidenced by an assortment of affiliated programming, including a roster of teen workshops and community talks led by featured artists on techniques in abstract painting. MoCADA’s self-stated mission is to use visual art “as a point of departure,” producing exhibitions that challenge or spark community discussion and debate. The show, therefore, is concerned not merely with aesthetics but with using abstract art as a kind of cultural tool. Pattern Recognition, in its concentrated endeavor to make its artistic discipline accessible to the community, asks an important question: how might we “mobilize” abstract art?
In its varied attempts to instruct the viewer on how to recognize its patterns, Pattern Recognition courts the difficulty of the abstract’s relationship to the viewer’s “understanding.” Abstract art (a historically contentious discipline) functions largely as an effort to evade representation. Speaking about abstract work using language—itself a system of representation— thus tends to seduce the speaker into a mise en abyme. I am torn as to whether to consider the paintings as surface-level art objects or as tools to tell cultural stories; the show traps me in between.
Abstract art can also often read as sterile, associated primarily with the manipulation of form—a provocative discipline to bring into conversation with such emotional material as diaspora and personal history. Multiple artists in the show employ found objects, detritus, and industrial waste in their surface manipulations of canvas. Hugo McCloud’s Cover Up (2013) deforms a large brass sheet using iron oxide and oil stick; Duhirwe Rushemeza uses a kind of alchemical acid burn to corrode her found materials in order to create new forms. As mixed-media artist Kimberly M. Becoat states in her interview with the curator, this “repurposing of energy” and the tension between transformation and ruin is at the heart of the technical constructions in this show.
As Wimberly states in his wall text, this kind of “fugitive material denotes a state that is on the one hand decaying and subtractive to its object and on the other hand alive and growing as it clings to the object.” The work in Pattern Recognition is positioned as a strategy for mapping out new futures by way of a common past. The show focuses strongly on the identity of the artists and where they are “from;” they each state their birthplace and hometown at the conclusion of their interviews. This emphasis on origins recalls Alain Locke’s quote in Mark Dery’s Black to the Future, his essay establishing the topic of Afrofuturism: “There is nothing more galvanizing than the sense of a cultural past.”
At the same time, the artists’ emphasis on abstraction forces a certain distancing from personal experience. Printmaker Sam Vernon speaks at length about the process of repetitively Xeroxing her drawings to make prints—layering her subjects over one another, the final work a copy of a copy. This is a technique for creating the fantasy projection of a new world even as it is a way of distancing oneself from the raw material at hand. There are several such easy metaphors that could be inferred from Pattern Recognition’s subject matter and title: creating new patterns in which we can recognize our origins; scrapping material from our past surroundings in the service of fabricating our own patterns. Though these metaphors are largely accessible, they do good work in the service of educating the viewer, creating readable maps of cultural and personal journeys. The plethora of educational tools presented, however, undermines the mystery of the abstract. We are left with a false sense of mastery over the uncanny and a sense of understanding that necessarily unravels as we grasp for it: that evasive and emotionally charged concept of home.
 Dery, Mark. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.