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'Big Bang' at the DeCordova
Among the works in "Big Bang" are (clockwise from left) "Tromolo #4" by Barbara Takenaga, "Transmute" by Sara Slavic, and "Dust Atlas" (detail) by Sarah Walker. (All photos Courtesy of DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park)

Seeing a pattern

From cosmology to geology, science inspires abstract art at DeCordova

In Sarah Walker’s vertiginously expansive paintings, geological patterns, scabby organic patches, and angular networks of crystalline lattice are layered over bright orange lines traversing deep blue space. Up close you see that the forms of many elements are elaborated in intricate detail; they look as if they were derived from photographs made by specialized scientific cameras.

These complicated, futuristic paintings are among the most impressive works in ‘‘Big Bang! Abstract Art for the 21st Century,’’ an exhibition at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. Featuring 15 artists who live in or have been active in New England, the show presents abstract paintings said to have been inspired by patterns and structures discovered by science or produced by technology.

As DeCordova curator Nick Capasso announces in an introductory wall text, ‘‘Big Bang! puts forth abstract paintings that address the structures of the universe, the mind, and the technologies that link them — art for the Information Age!’’ A museum wall label explains that Walker’s paintings were inspired by research into cosmology, neurology, computer science, meteorology, geology, and other fields. Similarly exotic preoccupations animate many other paintings in the show.

Making art appear more meaningful and relevant by relating it to some other field of study is a strategy that’s become all too common among artists and curators of the postmodern era. But what Capasso’s exciting title and rhetoric can’t disguise is that the kind of neatly crafted, mildly idiosyncratic, optically catchy, all-over pattern painting his exhibition mostly presents is not the rebirth of abstract art he claims it to be, but a familiar, commercially and academically well-established style. Though absorbing to behold, Walker’s paintings, too, are undermined by a suave designer sensibility. They might make excellent illustrations in a popular science magazine.

Too many of the artists included rely on some routinized additive process. Julie Miller draws zillions of tiny, colored circles on paper; Jon Petro paints countless tight coils on large and extra-large canvases; Reese Inman covers surfaces with exactingly gridded, slightly raised dots. Biology, particle physics, and cybernetics may be evoked, but seeing a lot of this kind of atomized work gets pretty monotonous.

There’s more. Meg Brown Payson paints suave fields of semiabstract cellular and plantlike forms that seem to be floating in some viscous liquid. Restricting himself to vertical and horizontal colored bars, Clint Jukkala constructs images resembling cartoons generated by a primitive computer. Sarah Slavick organizes gridded compositions of leaf shapes dotted by points of light on surfaces composed of little wooden rectangles.

The artist who gets the most out of accumulating small units is Barbara Takenaga. On medium-size canvases she paints swarms of small, bubble-like modules that appear to swirl toward or out of glowing centers. Rather than letting the additive process largely determine the final results, Takenaga cannily orchestrates color, light, and scale to give her images an infectiously zany, cosmic-psychedelic quality.

Other artists mash together diverse systems of mark-making. Thaddeus Beal embeds radiating and gridded patterns of fine sharp lines and soft blurry lines in waxy, yellow-toned surfaces. They suggest patterns seen in a cloud chamber, but look like old, scarred and abraded pieces of linoleum. That may sound interesting, but the paintings look blandly decorative.

A few artists play more loosely with their materials. Laurel Sparks pours and puddles paint and adds scraps of found textiles and scrawled lines, creating images suggestive of fungoid organisms. There’s a vigorous ugliness about her works that the exhibition could use more of.

Terry Rose also has a fluid process. Using ink, varnish, and dry pigments, he creates blurry forms that look like microscopic submarine flora and fauna. In his case, however, a glossy, superficial prettiness prevails.

Visually engaging but gimmicky are smallish canvases by Steven Bogart, who drips, pours, and dribbles fine strands of paint, generating stringy webs that call to mind Jackson Pollock. Up close you discover that by using incompletely mixed colors, Bogart achieves fascinating marbleized patterns reminiscent of amusement park spin-art paintings.

Thinking outside the traditional pictorial box, three artists include painting directly on gallery walls in their repertoires. On the tall, narrow wall facing the museum’s grand staircase, Peter Barrett has painted a stacked series of diamond patterned hexagrams punctuated by bumpy wooden spheres resembling molecular models. It looks like a mural for a science high school.

Sean Foley’s multimedia, mural-scale composition integrates Pop-Expressionist abstractions on canvas, undulating red and white stripes and a cartoon explosion on the wall, and flat organic cut-out shapes protruding on metal rods. It might be a timely, oblique satire of war and patriotism, but it comes off more as an eager-to-please display of graphic cleverness.

As for Cristi Rinklin’s otherworldly, digitally inspired images of intensely colored, weirdly illuminated clouds, I think the device of extending the cloud forms off the canvas into flattened silhouettes on the wall is distracting. What’s happening inside the rectangles of her pictures is far more intriguing. (Come to think of it, I don’t know why Rinklin is in this show — she’s more of a fantasist than an abstractionist.)

So what if anything does ‘‘Big Bang!’’ tell us about abstraction today? One thing it shows is how commonplace has become the impulse to read abstraction representationally. Unlike Frank Stella, who said of his obdurately nonrepresentational paintings, ‘‘What you see is what you see,’’ contemporary abstractionists often try to fold into their works all kinds of non-visual meanings, references, and associations — sociological, psychological, philosophical, religious, scientific, and otherwise. Too often, as in ‘‘Big Bang!,’’ this becomes a way to encourage interest in painting that is formally not all that thrilling.

‘‘Big Bang!’’ is not about the future of abstraction (at least, I hope it isn’t). It’s a snapshot of a certain kind of generic present-day abstraction. In that sense, it is informative. But it gives me a gnawing hunger for something completely different — and, preferably, unscientific.

Ken Johnson can be reached at