Category Archives: Andrew Bueno

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.

The Carnegie Museum of Art: White Cube, Green Maze

The art institutions of the near future may very well be the agents of a green curatorial revolution. With White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes, the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art seeks to capture this emerging zeitgeist by documenting six museum sites across four continents. These sites, documented through small-scale mock-ups, video, and immpecable photographs by renowned architectural photographer Iwan Baan, blur the line between architecture and landscape. In doing so, they eschew the contemporary sensibility of white, cubic gallery spaces, preventing artworks from being viewed in a sterilized context separate from the outside world.

The show asserts that sustainable architecture can break down and transform existing membranes between the public, the environment, and art institutions. For example, The Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington has pedestrian paths that cross the city’s transportation routes to the sea – partially built on what was once a contaminated Unocal fuel yard. In another example of reclamation, the Stiftung Insel Hombroich Museum of Neuss-Holzheim, Germany has reappropriated an obsolete NATO rocket base. Meanwhile, the rounded structure of the Tashima Art Museum, in Naoshima, Japan, has two apertures on its roof that mix the imagery of nature and structure. The models that depict all of these, while immaculately crafted in wood and plastic, exude a certain clinical detachment in their scale. The dense documentation of the sites through wall texts and touch-screen displays is essential for context but does little to reduce this.

Iwan Baan’s photography provides a truncated sense of what it is like to actually stand at each site, which does aid in dispelling the impersonal atmosphere somewhat. Baan captures architecture as a stage for the activity of people, often lending his images an unorthodox impression of movement. Take one photograph of the interior of the Adriana Varejao Gallery at the Instituto Inhotim in Brazil. In the foreground stand the crumbling remains of a tiled wall. Further back, a concrete floor gives way to a wall of windows. Making a diagonal across them is a lone visitor climbing stairs, framed against the botanical park outside.

Despite Baan’s considerable efforts, White Cube, Green Maze cannot convey the direct, visceral experience of travelling to any of these museums without walls. These are places whose purpose is to bring artworks into the public eye, but these artworks cannot be experienced by the viewer in proper fashion. In a way the show is acting partially as advertisement, encouraging visitors to roam these sites in person in order to absorb what documentation of architecture cannot grant alone. Part of the problem may be that Pittsburgh has no “green mazes” of its own which viewers can draw on– the gallery space in which contains the exhibition is itself an architecture that isolates its contents from the outside environment.  Considering the city’s industrial history, the creation of such a museum may be long overdue. In this way, the show’s limitations serve to highlight essential questions concerning future developments of art architecture everywhere.

The Mattress Factory: Feminist and…

It may be that the ellipsis within the title of the Mattress Factory’s newest exhibition, Feminist and…, are its most effective descriptor. The show features the work of six female artists across the spectrum of age and culture engaging in issues not necessarily considered unique to women.   As the statements of guest curator Dr. Hilary Robinson make clear, Feminist and… is meant to highlight the fact that feminism is an influence on one’s worldview rather than a historical, self-contained art movement. In this sense, the show looks beyond the confines of “feminism” as an isolated descriptor.

The installations resulting from this mindset are stunning in the diversity of their subject matter. Particularly notable is Carrie Mae Weems’ Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, an installation wherein a video is projected between the red curtains of a false stage using the Pepper’s ghost technique. Ethereal characters are pulled out of the past to remind viewers that they will never be gone, and that the stories of race, class, and gender struggles still need to be told. Another highlight is Written Room by Parastou Forouhar, which consists of nonsense Farsi script splayed across every plane of the room, while inscribed ping-pong balls litter the floor. Western viewers are forced to regard the text as ornamental, and the balls encourage what might already be problematically instinctive – to play with this imagery without considering it seriously. Both installations utilize wonderfully the engaging, physical immediacy of the installation as a medium.

Unfortunately, a fair portion of the artists in residence fail to make strong choices in their work. Julia Cahill’s Breasts in the Press, the most overtly feminist work of the show, consists of a tiny two channel video projection onto the breasts of a ridiculously endowed copy of the Venus de Milo. One channel is Cahill singing a parody of the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps”. The lyrics’ attempt at camp falters in its heavy-handedness. The other channel shows Cahill creating prints of her breasts. The connection is not elaborated upon. Cahill creates an arresting spectacle, but fails to capitalize on it.

Another example is Loraine Leeson’s Active Energy: Pittsburgh. The installation centers on six screens, each displaying facts and interviews concerning dementia. Multiple videos run simultaneously, fostering a disorienting hall-of-mirrors effect that makes it difficult to parse what is being said.  The literature in the hall outside of Active Energy make understanding it no easier – pamphlets concerning Alzheimer’s disease sit right next to brochures on green energy for no apparent reason. It is telling that some viewers were not even aware Active Energy was part of the exhibition.

Feminist and… has an interesting premise, but the effectiveness of the exhibition as a whole is only mixed. Since there are so few installations, the fact that two of them suffer from questionable execution prevents the show from reaching its full potential. The ellipsis in the title, meant to represent an unrecognized potential, could also represent an unfortunate uncertainty.

For the Artgoing Masses, The September 2012 Cultural District Gallery Crawl

            The chill rains of early fall did little to dissuade the Pittsburgh public from gathering in the Downtown neighborhood to enjoy the offerings of the quarterly Cultural District Gallery Crawl. Across several city blocks there lay gallery openings, film screenings, live music, and, in a relatively recent addition, a small marketplace of vendors hocking their wares. Thousands of visitors doggedly jumped from location to location seeking good company, free drinks, and more art than could be experienced in a mere three-and-a-half hour evening. Here was the interested public.

            The spectacle of the event somewhat unfortunately created certain limitations on both what art was shown and how it was displayed. The urges to see every one of the thirty or so unrelated exhibitions and to engage in lively socialization ensured that no artwork could be considered at the viewer’s own pace. Perhaps for this reason, informational placards were in low supply. For example, CURRENCY had a series of technically impressive paintings and intriguing sculpture – for example, a bloody fasces stuck into a wall –  anonymous without the few packets detailing the names, makers, and prices of each piece. The atmosphere’s energy was lively and exciting rather than rushed, making the event well suited to those with little experience in cultural exploration.

            Judging by their vast crowds of visitors, the two centerpiece venues of the night were the SPACE gallery, with Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses, and Wood Street Galleries, with The City & the City: Artwork by London Writer. Oddly, neither of the exhibitions were well suited to the night’s atmosphere. Circles‘ was obfuscated to the extreme – the smell of burnt plastic and the sight of a performer clad in headphones and goggles fiddling with an iPhone could not foster an essential good first impression with viewers. The exhibition lacked documentation, critical here in such an outlandish environment unlike CURRENCY‘s more conventional presentation. The City demanded commitment on a night when adopting such an attitude meant less time to explore Downtown’s hidden artistic nooks, founding itself on the act of careful examination. Greenwich Degree Zero, for example, filled an entire room with historical documents and evidence detailing the detonation of a bomb by French anarchist Martial Bourdin near London’s Royal Observatory. Each item was carefully altered so that, in a new representation of history, the Observatory was destroyed. The reinterpretation of the event expected meditation on the part of the observer, meditation unfeasible in the rush of bodies through the space.

            The Gallery Crawl had been so successful at establishing itself as a social experience that it showed when exhibitions were not tailored to it. As a method of introduction to and sampling of the Pittsburgh cultural community, however, it may have been unrivaled. Unassuming, the event demands nothing of the diverse crowds it draws, but instead offers a suggestion for those willing to listen – come back and see things on your own time, a little more patient and a little more sober.

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts: 21st Century Juju

Whether it be through the eyes of a tribal figure dressed in an amalgamation of old knickknacks and trinkets, or through the eyes of a slave named Delia, 21st Century Juju: New Magic, Soul Gadgets and Reckoning is always staring back into you. True to its name, Vanessa German’s solo exhibition seems to fill its gallery space with an otherworldly aura. An artist relatively early in her career, German’s mature multidisciplinary work and her creative contributions to the region made her an excellent choice for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts’ Emerging Artist of the Year Award. 21St Century JuJu holds its own alongside its sister exhibition, Artist of the Year Charlee Brodsky’s Good Dog.

Through mixed media sculpture and installation, German crafts the struggles of black life in America into beautifully haunting and tangible form. The show is a combination of tribal figures of German’s own making and found images and objects – the detritus of the environment she has emerged from. Through them, the magic proclaimed in the exhibition’s title works itself, allowing viewers to observe the layers of the black community’s history, stacked one on top of another. Here, German is a shaman and a storyteller.

The entry space and one hallway of 21st Century Juju are devoted to the icon of a woman named  Delia. It is all but stated that she was a slave. Her visage, lifted from daguerrotypes commissioned by a proponent of scientific racism, is repeatedly screen printed on several antique quilts and American flags. These works are perhaps best embodied by Delia In a Field of Stars, in which Delia covers a heavily draped 48-star flag, which itself covers another more mysterious cloth. The urge to investigate this hidden cloth is subsumed by the realization of its unimportance – Delia, and by extension the impact of institutionalized slavery, sits right in front of our eyes.

Perhaps the more iconic works of the exhibition are the half assemblages, half dolls, figures combining the juju of America of the past two centuries and of Africa long before. In one room, arranged in a circle, they invoke imagery of a ritual dance. Each is perched impossibly atop boxes, end tables, or carefully arranged tchotchkes, lending them a paradoxically imposing fragility. In another room lie a trio that twist on the convention – Red, White, and Blue for short. Housed within them are looping videos of a southern oak, a beach, and a cabin used by Dr. Martin Luther King, respectively. These suggest a journey by German to a particular area of the South, documentation of a reconnection to her American roots parallel to her exploration of African culture.

Every work in 21st Century Juju carries a certain eloquence – a razor wit with a deep spiritual magnetism. The of visual motif lends, appropriately enough, a poetry to the exhibition. As the Emerging Artist of the Year, Vanessa German has been recognized as an artist of promise. This show should leave any viewer excited to witness her future endeavors.

Bibliography

Blight, David. Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America. Yale         University Press, 2010.

Gestures: Intimate Friction in the Mattress Factory

In a grand demonstration of its commitment to the arts, the Mattress Factory has offered up its very architecture to the whims of its twelve artists in residence with the exhibition Gestures: Intimate Friction. Curated by Mary-Lou Arscott, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, Intimate Friction’s installations playfully rub away the clean museum facade of 1414 Monterey Street. Visitors are invited to contemplate the shift of the building’s role in the Northside neighborhood.

Considering Arscott’s own comments on the unknown history of 1414 Monterey Street – for instance, it was once a general store – the reluctance of most of its artists to reference specific facts concerning the venue might seem odd. This is not problematic, however. Case in point, Jen Gooch’s Home Splice: Basement is proof that this approach does not result in a shallow exhibition. The video, visible only through the crack of a waist-high door left ajar, gives an unflattering over-the-shoulder view of a woman exercising on a treadmill while breathlessly singing. The unintentional voyeurism on the part of the viewer invokes embarrassed but engaged speculation concerning the normally mundane – what kind of lives were lived in this building? Do we really need to know?

Intimate Friction is bursting with clever and surprising utilization of limited space. Some installations forgo importing new material to be constructed within the building; Glory Holes by Nina Marie Barbuto carves into walls and floors, exposing circular cross sections of worn brick and studs, while 3X4608 by Jeremy Ficca lifts floor panels into the air, providing an obtrusive look into the dank basement below. Other works enrich themselves by acknowledging the presence of other installations. For example Gill Wildman’s House says consists of small phrases of vinyl lettering that give a voice to 1414 Monterey Street. Placed on surfaces throughout the building, they often wryly comment on the works of the other artists as well as architectural traits of the space itself. This interplay amusing and fitting, highlighting 1414’s present role as a gallery, a membrane of idea exchange.

Intimate Friction effectively creates awareness of the Mattress Factory as an organic component of its greater surroundings – begotten by the old architecture of the neighborhood, the museum helps transform it in turn. Its wit and slight irreverence give it an accessibility that might normally be lacking in a contemporary art exhibition.

Imperfect Health at the Miller Gallery

We are the engineers of our own decay. In altering the environment to sustain ourselves – our food, our refuse, the air we breathe – we have introduced a host of new frailties to the human body. Imperfect Health at Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery attempts to do more than elucidate the details of this unfortunate situation. The exhibition presents solutions drafted by architects and designers, sometimes questioning whether these ideas might do more harm than good. Each floor of the Miller Gallery addresses one of three broad problems of industrialized society: food production and disease control, atmospheric pollution, and the accommodation of a growing elderly population.

This is not an art show, per se. Reams of data, research, and blueprints spread across walls and tables on all three floors of the gallery reflect a clinical, quantitative mood. Key terms and phrases on the show’s informational placards are highlighted in a manner resembling hyperlinks. Theoretical plans and proposals abound. Q-City by Front Studio Architects imagines the creation of a parallel infrastructure for use by functional citizens placed in quarantine, in doing so discussing the problematic idea of quarantine as segregation. Pig City by MVRDV outlines a solution for livestock raising in overcrowded regions through vertical urban animal husbandry – while pointing out that more people could simply switch to vegetarianism. Medicalized architecture is shown to be a powerful management tool for the symptoms, if not the causes

Art acts as a corollary to this, rather than the main attraction, reinforcing just how much our current architecture does not take our health into account. Bas Princen’s Mokattan Ridge (Garbage City) depicts vast piles of garbage bags spread across one of Cairo, Egypt’s neighborhoods. It is telling that the pigs that feed on this garbage are hard to differentiate from the garbage itself. Speleotherapy by Kirill Kuletsky dreamily captures the winding corridors of a salt mine, filled with people sleeping on beds. The air of the mine is used to treat severe asthma. These works provide an emotional anchor in an exhibition that, due to information overload, can be fatiguing.

Imperfect Health does not suggest that architecture will save the world. Instead, it is a way to channel our environment into something better than what we have now. With luck, some of the theoretical proposals the exhibition presents will be channeled into practical implementation, leaving us healthier for the experience.