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Rob Perrée: Abstract Art in Mocada Brooklyn

Abstract Art in Mocada Brooklyn

Looking for the Tradition of Black Abstraction at MoCADA

Dexter Wimberly, Photo by Kwesi Abbensetts

by Benjamin Sutton
Published: August 5, 2013

In “Pattern Recognition,” the new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, five young artists take incredibly varied approaches to abstraction. Curated by Dexter Wimberly, the exhibition highlights our tendency to seek out the familiar in non-representational art and to look for recurring patterns when works by very different artists are placed side-by-side. It also underlines the relative lack of attention given to black artists making abstract work.

The show fills MoCADA’s modest main gallery, with between three and eight pieces by each artist. They range from the purely painterly compositions by Rushern Baker IV and fleetingly figurative works on paper and plexiglas by Sam Vernon to bas relief assemblages by Kimberly Becoat, works by Hugo McCloud that incorporate found objects, and the painted cement and mortar pieces of Duhirwe Rushemeza. The small but thorough presentation also includes video interviews Wimberly conducted in each of the artists’ studios, offering further insight into their vastly varied practices.

In spite of the artists’ disparate backgrounds, practices, and materials — and true to the exhibition’s title — patterns do indeed emerge, and common interests echo throughout the gallery. Wimberly spoke to ARTINFO about the exhibition’s origins, the lack of attention given to non-Western abstract artists, and the sci-fi novel that provided the show’s title.

Where did the idea for this exhibition come from? Did you start noticing a certain strain of similar work and become interested in it? Or were you interested in the concept of patterns and set out to find artists doing related work?

The reason why this exhibition came into existence was a combination of two factors. The first factor is that I’ve been primarily interested in figurative painting up until recently, it’s been my primary area of focus. But I’ve started to broaden my interests and abstract painting is something that’s quickly become something that I’m really intrigued by. So, curatorially, I wanted to challenge myself to do something dealing with abstraction that I had never done before.

Also, the institution where the show is being held, MoCADA, in their 14 year history, has never done an exhibition dedicated to abstraction. So, it’s sort of a double opportunity for both of us to do something new — new for us. We understand that we’re not doing something necessarily incredibly new, but what we are doing is bringing attention to an area of fine art that I believe doesn’t get enough attention. I think part of it has to do with the sellability or marketability of abstraction over other forms of painting and art-making.

How did you come across these five artists?

All five artists in the show I’ve known for less than three years. Because I’m doing studio visits with artists on a regular basis, multiple visits a week, in my mind I catalogue what I’ve seen. This exhibition formed organically. I sort of knew I had to do it because it took shape in my mind. The artists that are in the show, I knew they would be the artists in the show before I knew what the title would be or where it would be. It became clear to me that these five artists — having been to their studios multiple times and having had conversations with them — I knew that I wanted to put the five of them together in a show.

The title of the show is a borrowed title from one of my favorite science fiction novels, “Pattern Recognition.” That novel was written about 11 years ago by the Canadian author William Gibson, and it’s sort of a modern take on post-9/11 global branding and conspiracy theories. I recommend that book to everybody. It’s just a very exciting novel. When I read “Pattern Recognition” in 2002 I was so taken by the title of the book, even though William Gibson didn’t coin that term — it’s sort of a computer theory — I just knew that it resonated with me so much that I would appropriate it and use it somewhere down the line, and it just so happened that when I decided to do this exhibition and I needed a title, I was reading “Pattern Recognition” for the second time.

A lot of group shows only have one or two pieces by each artist, but here, between the works and your video interviews, you really get a sense of each artist’s practice; is that a balance you were trying to maintain while you developed the show?

My goal with this show wasn’t to try to be sweeping in nature. Partly it was a practical choice; it’s not like I had 10,000 square feet to work with. The other reason was a personal decision that probably would have held up even if I did have 10,000 square feet, and that was that all too often group shows include so many artists that it becomes very difficult to get a sense of cohesion and very difficult to get to know any of the artists. You just feel like that type of show is very much a catalogue of 20 or 30 different artists, and if I really want to know anything about any of these artists I have to take it upon myself to find books, go on the internet, try to get a studio visit, and really do an awful lot of work. I didn’t want to do that, and I also wanted to give each of these artists an opportunity to say something to the public without it being caught up in so much noise, and not making them one of 30 artists in a show.

These artists seem to be influenced by a very broad range of styles and movements; what would you say are some of the major influences that recur throughout their work?

There are absolutely clear nods to Pollock, there are clear nods to Rauschenberg, de Kooning. There are some allusions to other artists who aren’t necessarily considered abstract artists. There are nods to Kara Walker, to Richter. I think it’s one of those things where you can’t really do an exhibition of abstract painting or mixed media without people seeing the influences of art historical figures. And that happens because our eyes and our brain kind of conspire to draw connections between what we’re looking at and what we’ve already seen.

I also think that one of the things that may go unnoticed is that there’s also a tremendous history of abstract art-making, particularly within the African and African American art-making tradition and history. And there are black artists that, in their own right, have become very, very famous internationally as abstract artists, people like Frank Bowling or Frank Wimberly (no relation). So what I also wanted to do was to show that the influences come a lot of different places. Definitely from the Rauschenbergs, from the de Koonings, from the Pollocks, but also from people that folks haven’t really heard of in the mainstream.

The other important point I think is that recently it seems there’s been a lot more attention being paid to abstraction. There was the show at the Museum of Modern Art, “Inventing Abstraction,” earlier this year. But the thing I noticed while doing research for this show is that there really haven’t been many exhibitions that deal with abstraction in the black art-making tradition. The Studio Museum in Harlem did an exhibition in 2006 that was dealing with abstract art-making within a very particular period of time — that exhibition was called “Energy/Experimentation” — and it was really focused on black artists making abstract work between 1964 and 1980. But that’s only a 16 year period, and then also there’ve been some commercial shows that have dealt with the tradition of abstract art-making by black artists, but they’ve been few and far between. Another thing to really point out is that in MoMA’s exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction,” there were no black artists. And then also the Whitney had an exhibition a few years ago, which was also the same situation. So somehow the fact that abstraction as a category of art-making exists in all cultures is getting lost in translation.

It seems as though the European and American traditions of abstract art-making have been eclipsing the fact that it exists in so many other cultures. This exhibition really isn’t trying to deal with [the lack of exposure of black artists making abstract work] as a main pillar of the show. There are only five artists in the show and they’re all emerging artists, so to take on something so lofty I think would require a bigger show, many more artists, and also some of these historical figures that I’ve mentioned. I wanted to simply remind people about abstraction and its importance, not to take ownership of its re-emergence or it as a category. My main goal was to say: Hey, these are five relatively young artists — some are in their 20s, some are in their 30s — who have taken it upon themselves to decide to make abstract work and not follow the trend of portraiture, or performance art, or graffiti, or some of the other things that seem to be getting a significant amount of traction.

There’s a great deal of hybridity in these artists’ works, both in terms of materials and practice. That characteristic is often ascribed to works by African American artists or artists who come from any kind of multi-cultural background; how do you think it functions for these artists in particularly?

I know what you mean. I think that one of the things that emerges in this show is the fact that these young artists really approach art-making from a very global and a very international perspective. Whether that’s from actual travel, or from just the exposure they have to information by way of the internet and an international network of friends and associates. I think that art-making at this point in time, even if you’re only 25 years old, is much more informed by global conversations, global politics, global thinking, global media, than it was 25 years ago, and so what you see is that these artists have more access to the information and influences, and that comes through in their work.

So rather than just painting in a more traditional style, they want to bring in other media, they want to incorporate assemblage, they want to incorporate mixed media. Hugo McCloud incorporates a lot of found objects into his work, and is very concerned with how time and the elements affect material. Kimberly Becoat, whose works are paper reliefs and mixed media, is as influenced by architecture as she is by painting. So when she builds up her work on paper or on canvas, she’s actually building structures as opposed to just thinking about it as a painting. She cites architects that influence her when she’s making her work. Rushern Baker, the abstract painter, is extremely influenced by his upbringing and being surrounded by politics. There are a lot of multiple influences going on.

The artist whose work I found most intriguing and challenging to engage was Sam Vernon; could you talk a little about her pieces in the show?

The thing about Samantha’s work is that the installation piece made of paper at the entrance of the exhibition is not pure abstraction. If you look closely at some of those pieces of paper you’ll see figures and things you can make sense of, things that look like ghosts, people’s arms or legs. Taken as a whole that is an abstract work of art; taken as its component parts, a figure emerges from these different elements. I thought that was interesting because again it redefines what abstraction is or isn’t; is abstraction the absence of the figure — non-representational — or can you build abstraction from multiple figures that then become difficult to discern?

That’s a whole different conversation, but her work is really rooted in this idea of the folklore of ghosts, things that are unseen, and the idea that our history is as influenced by material things that we all know and agree upon as it is influenced by spiritual things. So she believes in ghosts, not in a Hollywood way, and not in a Western religious kind of way, but she believes that there are things that are unseen that influence the physical world, and so in that regard her work incorporates those ideas. When you look at her work in its totality you begin to understand that she is dealing with her history as an African American woman, but also the shared history we all have that might be connected through spiritual aspects of the world. She’s also influenced by her parents: Her mother was a professional pattern-maker in the fashion world, and you see that textile and fashion influence in her work as well.

My favorite discovery from the exhibition was Duhirwe Rushemeza; how did you come across her work, and what first attracted you to it?

She graduated from RISD some years ago and I didn’t know much about Duhirwe prior to a year or so ago. She’s the only artist in this show who was born in Africa, in Rwanda specifically. Her work has evolved over time, having initially been very influenced by the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994-95. And then she eventually started finding additional influences that are both rooted in her African heritage and culture, and in her more global experience, having lived in what we consider to be exotic places and also having lived in places like Ithaca, New York, which is not that exotic. She pulls from multiple African influences, not just Rwanda but also other countries. And also having lived in American for the better part of her life, she is very influenced and connected to the American experience.

Her work is interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but one of the things that I find very appealing about it is her choice of color. I think that the colors that she uses in her work are not immediately intuitive to a Westerner. There’s this idea you grow up with in America about colors that “go together,” colors that match, but her color choices to me immediately read as not American. You immediately get the sense that it’s coming from another culture. And then when she explains that these are colors that are commonly found on buildings in Rwanda and that her work is supposed to mimic excavated walls of buildings and structures, which is why she uses mortar and concrete layered over wood to give the work this very heavy, almost cement-block feel to it. The work is heavy, but it’s not as heavy as an actual concrete wall. It’s supposed to mimic that kind of structure. What she’s attempting to do is create this sense that when you’re looking at the work you’re looking at an object or artifact that’s been excavated from a ruin or maybe an artifact from nature.

Now that all the works are hanging together, have any new patterns emerged from the works?

Absolutely. This show was my first opportunity to see these five artists’ work together. Even though I could look on my computer and make decisions about what’s going to be in the show, when you see the physical work in front of you it takes on an entirely different characteristic. I think that what’s interesting is that if you already know something about the artists’ intent it really takes your mind to a different place.

The most eye-opening thing for me is when I’m standing next to someone at the exhibition who doesn’t know anything about any of the artists, it’s their first time seeing the show and the space, they have an entirely different read on everything than I do. If they don’t read the wall text and they just look at the work, people’s conclusions are wildly different, which I think is a great thing about the show. If it was just images of famous people or things that are more common you’d find more uniformity in people’s reactions, but I love the fact that every single person has such a unique and different reaction. And there are also some very strong reactions about what people do and don’t like, which I also think is great. The thing about this kind of work is that if you don’t have an immediate emotional reaction to something in a positive way, things could very well be somewhat — I don’t want to say repulsive — but in a way you get repelled by things that you don’t understand.

What are you working on next?

For me, curatorially, this is really the tip of the iceberg. Ideally this is one of many abstract shows that I’ll do. So for me it’s sort of the first page. In addition to “Pattern Recognition” I have an exhibition on view right now at Mixed Greens, which I co-curated with Larry Ossei-Mensah. That runs until August 16 and this exhibition at MoCADA runs until October 6, so I’ve been very busy. But I have another show opening on September 12 at Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea, so I’m not getting much time off.

What’s the best exhibition you’ve seen recently?

There’s an artist that I follow closely, her name is Margaret Bowland. And she is represented by Driscoll Babcock Gallery. She had a show recently called “Disturbing the Peace,” a painting exhibition — mostly portraiture — that show and her work is very very meaningful to me. It speaks to me a lot.

“Pattern Recognition” continues at MoCADA through October 6.