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BmoreArt’s Picks: March 10-16

I adore pattern. I always have, but I have never considered why I love it. Pattern is such a universal practice that it must go beyond the pleasurable sensation derived from ornate embellishment in art, clothing, home décor, and nature. There must be a deeper, historically and/or scientifically ingrained reason that human beings have spent countless hours (decades! millennia?) mimicking nature’s sophisticated arrangements in textiles, paintings, carvings, and architecture. Otherwise, wouldn’t we spend all that extra time hunting or farming or expanding the ability to accumulate wealth and power?

As soon as I saw the quilt-like postcard for Surfacing, the new group show at MONO Practice, I felt an urgent need to see this exhibition. Organized by New York-based guest curators Alex Paik and Mark Joshua Epstein, Surfacing presents the work of six artists from across the country—Sarah Bednarek, Ricki Dwyer, Glendalys Medina, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Cory Siegler, and Patricia Zarate—who employ intricate patterns through a variety of tactile materials that are often more craft- and design-related than contemporary art tends to be and, as such, felt easy to connect to and appreciate.

Is there an evolutionary advantage that makes human beings attracted to intricate sequences of color, shape, and line? And if so, how does it help us to survive? What if an attraction and adherence to pattern, an amalgamation of line, shape, color, texture, and material culture, were ingrained in our DNA as a way to feel connections to nature and other humans?
Cara Ober

After my visit to the gallery, I continued to think about why pattern is so widely satisfying. Is there an evolutionary advantage that makes human beings attracted to intricate sequences of color, shape, and line? And if so, how does it help us to survive? What if an attraction and adherence to pattern, an amalgamation of line, shape, color, texture, and material culture, were ingrained in our DNA as a way to feel connections to nature and other humans? Perhaps pattern is simply an extension of beauty or cleverness, a concept and practice proven to motivate human beings to innovate, procreate, and prosper. I’m also curious about a love of pattern is shared with animals. Birds and insects use configurations of color and shape to pollinate flowers and attract a mate, but why? Is this about simplifying the complexity of nature into symbolic maps in order to better comprehend it? Or is it possible that patterns, the more detailed and eye-catching the better, communicate health, wealth, and care across species?

In Surfacing, each artist’s works directly investigate pattern as a flat exterior or surface embellishment for an object, wall, or concept, but the works on display go much deeper than a surface treatment. According to the curatorial statement, these artists “argue against distinctions between ornamentation and content. Rather than having pattern act as a decorative device, artists in Surfacing instead use pattern as a way to bring forth the complex visual, cultural, and personal histories that underpin the work.” In this context, the idea of ‘surface’ is a seductive introduction to deeper ideas about what humans value across cultures and history.

There’s always one piece in an exhibition that immediately grabs your attention and I quickly fell in love with Cory Siegler’s “Quilt Set II” (2018), a two-part wall hanging and floor piece of repurposed fabrics that can be interchangeably mixed and matched using a neat row of corozo buttons. Is it a painting or a functional quilt? Should it be displayed on a gallery wall or on an antique bed in your grandmother’s house? Yes. Both. From a distance and up close, this piece oozes love and care and a democratic willingness to use all kinds of available materials in traditionally established quilt patterns, and the craftsmanship is impeccable. It’s a standout piece and gorgeous in the way it reflects against the polished concrete gallery floor.

Patricia Zarate "Tri-modulation (535)," 2020

An equally compelling piece, Patricia Zarate’s wall installation of black and red triangles is arranged in a 72” circle directly on the wall, functioning simultaneously as a mandala, paper quilt, and mural. This hybrid piece commands your attention from a distance through bold color and intricacy, offering a dizzying arrangement that, up close, is surprisingly tender and intimate. Instead of erasing it, the artist left a simple pencil line on the wall where she drew a perfect circle to orient the complicated grid of shapes. This evidence of the artist’s process, although arguably an imperfection, charmingly humanized this work that from a distance seems mechanically precise. Titled “Tri-modulation” (2020), it feels simultaneously digital and handmade, complex and simple, and its visual oomph is achieved through devotion and accumulation.

Two other large wall works resonate next to Siegler’s and Zarate’s works, including Ricky Dwyer’s “Untitled (Studio blanket with poms)” (2018), which offers a softer, but no less visually complex, counterpoint to the show, where dyed cotton and muppety tufts of wool are arranged in a grid of undulating warm tones over a neutral woven backdrop. And “Cassamance” (2020) by Nontsikelelo Mutiti, is a baroque, vinyl wall maze of linear vines. It stretches out across two walls, a visually ambitious trick to pull off, and, like wallpaper, the linear pattern occasionally breaks but doesn’t fall apart. Of these four large wall works, this work feels experimental and hints at possibilities to be installed in a variety of different ways, perhaps next time at a larger scale. It’s a pleasure to look at and to photograph, especially when you come close enough for it to fill your entire peripheral vision. This piece was installed at the optimal size, in order to function amiably with all the other works in the show, but feels like it wants to grow larger in its next iteration.

Three totemic sculptures by Sarah Bednarek function as odd and solemn memorials, a testament to the healing properties of repetition, symmetry, intricacy, and humor. Bednarek died last year at age 39, and her physically beautiful, decadently colored sculptures vibrate with an eccentric but sincere brand of molecular humor achieved through the homey medium of painted wood and, in one case, velvet. All four resemble microscopic organisms and cells, and offer a macro/micro view of the universe and a solid respect for the finality of life. It was these works in particular that made me wonder if pattern’s never-ending potential to proliferate is, in fact, a very human reaction to the mortality we all share and a way to feel connected to something larger and universal which will outlast our existence.

Nonisikelelo Mutiti "Cassamance," 2020 and Sarah Bednarek "Pillar 4," 2019 (detail)
Ricki Dwyer "Untitled (Studio blanket with poms)," 2018 (detail)
Glendalys Medina, "Exercise I," 2018, Sarah Bednarek's "Pillar 2," 2019, and Patricia Zarate's "Tri-modulation (535)," 2020

Surfacing is a tight little show and the two works by Glendalys Medina are quieter than the rest. Both pieces are displayed behind glass and both require a close reading due to a subtle complexity. In “Exercise 1” (2018), Medina offers the viewer a recipe of seven verbal directions to “Create a Signature Visual Language” and then models the exercise herself. First, you are to select an object that represents you, and then, using measuring tools like rulers, a compass, and pencil, break the object into approximately 50 shapes. Then you’re supposed to remove surface details and create stencils, and then mirror the stencils at varying degrees and draw the interlocking shapes. In this piece, the author used a boombox to represent herself and the resulting compositions—BlackGold, BlackDoubleCircle, BlackDiamond, and BlackSquare—are simple yet effective. Medina’s subsequent designs, rendered in black shapes on a white background and shown in order, function as an accessible design exercise and a model for expanding one’s own creativity. This work grows on you slowly in a room full of works that are more immediate, but time with it is well spent.

Art critics are not supposed to have favorites, but we always do. If I could, I would absolutely live with Sarah Bednarek’s “Pillar 4,” the bluish phallic totem of painted wood whose surface has been rhythmically gauged by a worm-sized router. I wanted to touch this piece and read its surface with my fingers like braille. This piece functions as a softer, rounder version of an obelisk, and balances solemnity and goofiness, a perfect philosophy for living a meaningful life. I know that this piece in particular would provide a sense of comfort to me, in my home and throughout my daily life, and perhaps it is this embodiment of stability and security that the experience of pattern offers to all of us.

Glendalys Medina, “Taino Plate 2.2,” 2019, Sarah Bednarek’s “Pillar 4,” 2019, and Cory Siegler’s “Quilt Set II,” 2018

Pattern is completely intertwined with pleasure, but also pain and sacrifice, because the more complicated the design, the more the effort required by the artist. And while it’s fun to speculate about the purpose and power of pattern throughout history through material culture, it’s even more interesting to consider the potential for pattern to serve a variety of valuable functions in the future. Does pattern play a key role in community building, in immediate visual communication of shared values, of acuity or valuable skill? And is pattern synonymous with beauty, but an accessible version of it that can be lovingly built, stitched, or cultivated through diligence and hard work, rather than a status or quality you are born with?

At its core, pattern is a life-affirming and hopeful signifier that unites us without needing a single word. And whether you’re a modernist sculptor, a hobbyist quilter, a minimalist painter, or an interior design fanatic, pattern effectively crosses boundaries between nature and science, art and history, storytelling and homebuilding, offering countless opportunities to revel in timeless visual connections. While the desire to intellectualize or complicate this is natural, it’s essential that we allow ourselves to luxuriate in these designs with our eyes and other physical sensations, to let these works of art nourish our spirits and enhance our capacity to appreciate one another in our humble attempts to cultivate a sense of beauty wherever it is possible.

Top Image: Cory Siegler's "Quilt Set II," 2018 and Sarah Bednarek's "Pillar I," 2019

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