Pittsburgh Glass Center: American Idols

Pittsburgh’s art institutions have a tendency to place themselves within a post-industrial context, referencing a grand narrative that begins at steel’s arrival and ends at the recovery from its collapse. Pittsburgh Glass Center’s revitalizing efforts subvert this tradition – behind its modern urban facade lies an effort to reconnect to Pittsburgh’s obscured pre-steel history, a time when the city exported glass nationwide.  Further underscoring this difference is the pragmatism of its practice. A bustling hub of activity, the Glass Center successfully plays multiple roles as a gallery space, a glass arts education center, a host for resident artists, and a large-scale fabricator. Through its considerable resources and talent pool, it seeks to cultivate a renewed appreciation of the underrepresented glass medium within the Pittsburgh region.

To this end, currently on display in the Hodge Gallery of the Glass Center is American Idols, a solo exhibition by John Moran.  Relevant in light of the election season, American Idols toys with the treatment of the President of the United States as a character and a celebrity rather than a politician.  The exhibition consists of a long hall filled with busts of all forty-three individuals that held the Presidency, but they are far from the stately Greco-Roman renderings that grace most civic buildings. Here, they are clothed in modern attire, their colorful, unconventional glass visages grotesquely halfway between caricature and reality.

There is a crude, unpolished wit to American Idols. Each president is labeled with a nickname given while he was in office, and the images on his shirt give a humorous summation of the myth surrounding him. For example,  “Jack” Kennedy’s shirt bears a print of Marilyn Monroe, referencing his rumored extramarital affair. “Tricky Dick” Nixon wears a prison uniform, referencing his role in the Watergate Scandal. Visitors may vote for their favorite bust, a reflection of both national elections and, distressingly, reality television. Here, the American President is a wholly manufactured figure.

Though the scale of Moran’s project is impressive given the unhurried, methodical action necessary for good glasswork, it also seems lacking in thought. The presidents’ vestments consist of actual clothes covered in epoxy to give the look of glass – a tacky aesthetic. The graphics on less historically well-known presidents lack the punch of those on presidents who truly stand out in the American mythology. The placement of the busts in the gallery space follows no real ordering, and the red carpet viewers walk on is ragged, giving the sense that curational decision making was rushed.

More troubling is Moran’s unwillingness to acknowledge the conflicting infamy and celebrity of our current president, Barack Obama. His label of Obama as the “hip-hop president” seems a rather timid response to the complex inter-media and inter-party conflict taking place over just what legacy will define Obama post-presidency. American Idols allows viewers to sit back and laugh at the historical interplay between public eye and politics, but this attempt at broad appeal creates an inconsistency that prevents it from being truly insightful.

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