March 20 2013 12:00 AM

Big new exhibit fills Broad Art Museum with brain food and eye candy

Photo by Lawrence Cosentino
In the tug of war between art and architecture, Broad Art Museum curator Alison Gass has been sandbagging until now.

A pink-fringed aurora the size of a humpback whale, a 60-foot-long tsunami of patterned string, and three galleries of things that drift, gleam, mesmerize and throb are filling the museum for Gass’ big new exhibit, “Pattern: Follow the Rules,” opening Friday.

Since the Broad opened last November, the staff has been content to let architect Zaha Hadid’s cool matrix of steel and glass take a star turn, but the razzle-dazzle of “Pattern” will change that.

Beginning in 1959 with New York’s swirly Guggenheim, glitzy new museums have threatened to upstage the art inside, but Gass sees no need for a fight. On the contrary, as the Broad’s “Pattern” art was uncrated and hung last week, the building and the objects inside started to communicate to each other on a grand scale, weaving a double web of patterns within patterns.

“This is the perfect building for this show,” Gass said. “The new role of pattern in contemporary art echoes what’s happening in the building.”

Rippling over the museum’s huge, two-story northwest gallery, New York-based Teresita Fernández’s “Night Writing” is made of hundreds of pink, gray and black tubes, like a rainy, neon-lit street projected into the sky.

Far below, pattern artist Alyson Shotz, another New Yorker, was hard at work Friday on the 60-foot-long, undulating “White Wave,” her longest “string drawing” yet.

For over a week, Shotz and her team tapped thousands of long needles into a wall and threaded them with delicate webs of white linen.

In art, as in nature, patterns seduce the eye. Last week, while working on the wall, one of Shotz’s helpers told her the wall looked like a murmuration, the cloud-like swooping and massing of thousands of birds in the air.

“I liked that,” Shotz said. “I want the experience of my work to be like an experience of nature. There are patterns that repeat themselves throughout nature, small and large.”

Shotz said there is a “really strong relationship” between her art and the building around it. “A lot of my work deals with folding, and the whole exterior of the building looks like a big origami folded thing,” she said.

There are plenty of heady concepts behind “Pattern,” but it’s OK to stand in front of this stuff and go “oooh” and “aaah.” To Gass, that’s what distinguishes this show from the cold, austere minimalism of the 1960s and ‘70s.

“The minimalists put idea before form, but here, the idea and form are deeply entwined, equally significant,” she said. “The result is spectacularly optical, spectacularly visual.”

Each gallery used for “Patterns” has its own mood and theme. Dominated by drifting stuff like Fernandez’s “Night Writing” and Shotz’s “White Wave,” Gass wanted the huge northwest gallery to be “ethereal, ephemeral, meditative.”

The serenity switch snaps off on the second floor gallery overhead. Psychedelic, log-like cylinders by Rhode Island-based artist Ara Peterson seem to ripple like computer images, despite their humble plywood make-up. Screaming yellow bomb shelter wallpaper hems the viewer in from floor to ceiling.

To the south, in the main second floor gallery, a huge mirrored mobile by Pae White stirs up a frozen blizzard of sharp, laser cut metal flakes of color.

The mobile is stunning, but the long second floor gallery is mainly a pattern painter’s paradise.

To her delight, Gass snagged several works by New York-based Rudolf Stingel, whom she called “the turning point in the late 20th century in terms of painting and pattern.”

For decades, art poobahs sneered at pattern as mere decorative art. Stingel brought it back with a vengeance.

One of his large paintings at the Broad creates an uncanny illusion of black damask fabric. In a virtuoso flourish, he left the bottom few inches of the canvas unpainted and smudged, to prove to the viewer that it’s paint.

(Stingel’s patterned paintings are also a counter-jab at art critic Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 remark that minimalist art had become “apocalyptic wallpaper.”)

A lot of the art in “Pattern” was created especially for the Broad. In that same gallery Friday, the sharp smell of paint emanated from a freshly uncrated work from another master pattern painter, 34-year-old New York artist Garth Weiser. Through a complicated layering process, Weiser paints patterns of tiny ripples that seem to move as the viewer moves.

Weiser is in great demand in the art world, with a long waiting list for his painstaking work, but the star power of the Broad helped Gass snag every artist she wanted for “Pattern.”

“They all knew about the Broad,” Gass said.

As the art and the building came together last week, Gass reveled in one discovery after another.

Friday, as Shotz was working downstairs, Gass burst in to tell her that a test section of another of her works, “Geometry of Light,” had just been put up in the museum’s glass-walled east wing.

Shotz dropped her hammer and rushed over to find long vines studded with thousands of acrylic discs dangling in the sunlight.

Wranglers from Michigan State University’s physical plant stepped back to let the artist scrutinize the work. 

In two previous installations, at Espace Louis Vuitton in Tokyo and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Shotz’s crystalline vines were hung low to the ground and swept upward. That didn’t work at the Broad, so Shotz and Gass decided to hang them and let gravity do the brushwork.

“It’s really moving, like bubbles,” Shotz said, pacing around it. “Come over here and you see the architecture through it.” The wranglers looked relieved.

Gass gave them the go-ahead to install the rest of the work — all 15 crates of it. By the show’s opening, the glass walls will be festooned with 190 12-foot strands and 90 8-foot strands of reflective discs.

Shotz’s art, like most of “Pattern,” hovers in a sweet spot between scientific rigor and mystery. “There’s a structure that’s somewhat understandable and a larger mass that becomes less understandable,” Shotz said. “Somewhere between those two things is what becomes interesting.”

“Pattern: Follow the Rules”
Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
March 22-June 23
Members-only preview Thursday 7 p.m.-9 p.m.