Category Archives: Carolyn Supinka

No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by William Steacy

Immediately upon entering the Silver Eye Photography Center, you come face to face with The Beast.

A 170 foot collage of newspaper clippings, advertisements, and pages torn from the artists’ journal, this piece presents Will Steacy’s investigation of the problems underlying American culture.

This piece dominates the current exhibit at the Silver Eye Photography Center like a many-headed monster, presenting different issues in the form of headlines, which jump out at the viewer much like headlines in an actual newspaper do: ‘Betrayed!’, ‘Immoral’ ,‘Fraud’, ‘Heartbreaking!’.  Steacy’s clippings range from stories involving gun violence and poverty to pop culture, featuring The Monopoly Man, a blood-drenched Carrie, and Freddy Kruger.  Recurring motifs such as skulls and guns create visual touchstones, illustrating the connections Steacy has made between various topics.

Steacy does not believe that ‘The American Dream’ is a myth, as most critiques do.  Instead, he believes it was ‘stolen’ from the people, by big businesses and greedy politicians, and traces the trouble to very specific origins lying in Reaganomics.

Steacy makes his stance on this history evident both through the wall text and the excerpts from his journal, included throughout.  His journal entries as well as the wall text (which states that he “comes from five generations of newspaper men”) clearly show that he identifies himself as part of the downtrodden masses currently suffering through the economic downturn. His personal presence in this piece strengthens its message, rather than weighing it down with personal bias.  His identification with the everyman is also shown through his idolatry of heroes such as Bruce Springsteen and Charles Bukowski, to which small homages are built within the collage.

The relationship between ‘The Beast’ and the photography, however, is less successful.  In a way it seems like Steacy’s photography is a variation of his collage-work: the same message in a different form.  The photographs are taken from his projects Down These Mean Streets, All My Life I Have Had The Same Dream, and We Are All In This Together. Steacy photographs in the same way that he collages:  culling moments, places, and people from the cultural landscape to bring the economic and social problems of our country to light.  These works seem to be most successful when they portray objects such as storefronts or fading advertisements, such as the text “Someplace Else” spray painted onto a wall in Detroit.  These images become almost poetic when taken out of their environments and placed in a gallery.  However, when this gaze is applied to people, Steacy’s portraits feel empty and place-less.  These pieces offer no specifics or context to their subject’s circumstances than what the viewer can glean from their personal appearance, and from the wall text.

The disjointed nature between the front and back rooms created a sense of imbalance in the exhibit, as though Steacy had said his point much more forcefully and clearly in The Beast than he had in his photographs.  Though in both cases, Steacy definitely achieves his goal of bringing the hardships endured in America to light.

The City & The City: Wood Street Galleries

“Go where we may, rest where we will, 

Eternal London haunts us still.” 

-“Rhymes on the Road” by Thomas Moore, Irish poet, singer, and socialite of London

‘Haunting’ definitely describes the exhibit currently at Wood Street Galleries.  “The City & The City: Artwork by London Writers” is curated by Justin Hopper, and features seven British artists who have created works utilizing fiction,  poetry, video, and installation to investigate various aspects of the city of London.

Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy alter history in Greenwich Degree Zero, which reimagines the outcome of the attempted bombing in 1894 of the Greenwich Observatory.  Visitors get a sense of intrigue and excitement from their ability to examine real newspapers and pamphlets up close, which have been altered to portray French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s attack as a success.  Dickinson and McCarthy’s artist statement voices their desire to interrogate the notion of an ‘event’ through media in this recreation, but although this notion is conveyed, the reader is left without a sense of the impact or importance of the event itself.  The newspapers condemn the anarchist movement and Bourdin, but one would imagine that they would do so anyway, in the actual course of events.

Another piece that left me wanting is Rachel Lichtenstein’s Sight Unseen, in which she has created an homage to the jewelers and craftspeople who work in London’s Hatton Garden, which she describes as “the most secret street in London”.  Found objects and artifacts are displayed inside glass cases, and no text accompanies these objects, save for an audio clip that is playing  near a display case featuring a doll-sized jewelers desk. The audio is from an interview with Dave Harris, a 90 year old diamond dealer, but it is muffled and of poor quality. I found this piece frustrating in that Lichtenstein references such a fascinating section of London’s history through artifact, but provides nothing else to enable the viewer to imagine the community behind the objects. This installation coincides with the release of her book Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden, which may provide the information lacking in Lichtenstein’s exhibit.

The most successful piece was Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night, a hypertext fiction featuring eleven chapters, each telling the story of a different tribe of London’s night wanderers, ranging from cab drivers to ghost hunters.  This piece also exists as a physical book (commissioned by Artangel) but Sandhu’s narrative translates beautifully into an interactive installation.  One viewer controls the pacing of the narrative, virtually ‘turning the pages’ by clicking a mouse.  The music is just as haunting as the text itself, composed by London-based artist “Scanner” (Robin Rimbaud).  The eerie music and the ghostly white glow of the text on the screen creates a magical atmosphere that perfectly complements the complex narrative itself.

Though the work of the artists varies greatly in terms of their focus and medium, each contributed to an overall ethereal, ghostly tone throughout, which imbued the show with the kind of magic contained by the ancient city itself.

Pittsburgh Glass Center

“Steel City” is the phrase conjured in most people’s minds when thinking of Pittsburgh.  However, “Glass City” is closer to the truth.

The Pittsburgh Glass Center represents a revival of the industry that originally monopolized the city’s factories, before the rise of the steel industry pushed it to near extinction. In the early 1900s, Pittsburgh flourished with glass artisans and factories.  The Glass Center was created in 2002 by Kate Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, artists involved in Carnegie Mellon University’s glass art program who were moved to create a space for the craft after the University’s glass program was shut down. Mulcahy and Desmett purchased the building from the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, and in the years since, The Glass Center has worked to revitalize both the community and the art of glass work in the region through its multiple programs.

The Glass Center is an exciting space because it functions on many different levels, since it houses the Hodge Gallery, which features the work of a Resident Artist at the Center, the Resident Artist program itself, an apprenticeship program, and classes that are offered both to University students and to the public.

The Hodge Gallery currently houses resident artist Jon Moran’s show, entitled “American Idols”.  Moran has created busts of all forty three U.S. presidents, sculpted from glass with facial features and hair carved in epoxy and painted. The busts are arrayed on white pedestals along a celebrity-esque red carpet, and at the very back of the exhibit, the American Idol TV show logo is hung on the wall, highlighting the role of the president as a celebrity as well as a politician.   Rather than clothing them in period-appropriate attire, Moran has garbed them in modern clothing, ranging from a bedazzled uniform (Andrew Jackson) to sports jerseys, and displays their nicknames beneath the pedestals rather than their actual names. Though the technical skill of the artist is inherent in the busts, the exhibit functioned only on the level of a political caricature, poking fun at famous names.  Though humorous, it left me wanting for some deeper message.

The accessibility of the Center creates a thrilling sense of opportunity: the gallery is free and the staff members are friendly and extremely informative, offering tours of the workshops and furnace rooms as well as an opportunity to watch master glass blowers at work.  When walking through the building, I was entranced by the work being created right before my eyes, and immediately began wondering if I had enough room in my schedule to take a glass class myself.

That’s not to say that glass art is a skill easily picked up.  My tour guide was quick to mention the scarcity of glass programs currently in universities, as well as the grueling amount of training (sometimes more than twenty years) required to become proficient in glass art.  But it is the juxtaposition of these skilled masters and the rare nature of their craft with the accessibility offered by the Center itself that makes the site such a valuable resource.

The Marcellus Shale Project at Pittsburgh Filmmakers

Fracking: a slang term describing the extraction of natural gas from rock formations, using pressurized liquid to break through shale.  Such a simple definition inspires complicated reactions from a wide range of people who are affected by this drilling process, which is currently used throughout Pennsylvania, but an exhibition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers utilizes art as a medium to offer a new perspective on the effects of the process itself.

            The Marcellus Shale Project, curated by Pittsburgh Center for the Arts director Lauren Domencic, creates a visual narrative that portrays the processes and effects of the controversial natural gas drilling that is drastically altering the lives of rural residents of Pennsylvania.  Six photographers spent a year traveling throughout regions being drilled, capturing both protests and support for the drilling, displaced families, drill workers, and the natural environment itself.  The techniques and style of the photographs vary by photographer, in turn altering their effect upon the viewer.

Nina Berman’s work reflects the tense relationship between rural PA residents and their environment through her photographs, capturing rig flares igniting the forest skyline, and the reflection of a woman and her children in their mobile home.  Berman’s photograph of a young girl blowing bubbles exemplifies the important role that text has in this exhibition.  The photograph would seem almost idyllic if not for the caption next to it, which states “Paige Simons lives without drinking or bath water”.

Lynn Johnson’s photographs are solely in black and white and feature human subjects more prominently than the environment, focusing on the lives and relationships that have become complicated by the drilling.  She shows Reverend Leah Shade hugging the son of a gas worker, hinting at the criticism and social backlash that families of workers must face.  She captures the tragedy of such displacements through her photograph of an elderly woman, Betty Whyte, standing in the doorway of her now empty mobile home, which she was forced to sell for a pitiful compensation.  Johnson’s focus on displacement is strengthened by her use of black and white photography, which casts an ominous, tragic tone to her pieces.

Noah Addis’s photographs are the largest of the exhibit, and the viewer is instantly drawn to the triptych in the center of the wall, featuring (from left to right) the face of a woman, that of a small girl, and an old man.  All are looking directly at the camera as though to dare the viewer to deny their existence or the statements made in the wall text.  The text features their names and their grievances against the drilling practices, emphasizing the subjects as individuals rather than nameless members of a forgotten demographic.

Though the techniques and focuses of the six photographers vary, their goals do not.  The website of the project vows to “engage communities in the current Marcellus debate while providing important historical images for the future”.  The exhibit effectively engages viewers in this debate and provides an ominous hint as to what ‘the future’ might entail for the region if this engagement is not maintained.

Bibliography

  1. “About.” MSDP. N.p., n.d. Web. Oct. 2012. <http://the-msdp.us/about&gt;.
  2. “Fracking.” – Definition of by Macmillan Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. Oct. 2012. <http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/fracking&gt;.
  3. “Marcellus Shale Documentary Project.” Pittsburgh Filmmakers. N.p., n.d. Web. Oct. 2012. http://pfm.pittsburgharts.org/marcellus-shale-documentary-project.

White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes at The Carnegie Museum of Art

White Cube, Green Maze at the Heinz Architectural Center invites visitors to re-imagine the role and purpose of museums themselves through its documentation of six ‘museums without walls’ from all around the world.  This new breed of museum, according to curator Raymund Ryan, signifies a shift towards the synthesis of architecture and natural landscape.  Photographs by Iwan Baan are displayed alongside videos and models by the architects themselves in an attempt to engage visitors in both the development and deployment of these new spaces. This exhibit explores the ways that art and the environment can interact and transform each other, although its reliance on documentation is slightly disappointing.

I felt overwhelmed throughout by the sheer amount of data conveyed through the plaques, touch-screen computers and wall text, although it was necessary as an attempt to contextualize each piece in its history, such as the Olympic Sculpture Garden of Seattle’s Neukom Vivariam.  This piece by Mark Dion consists of a real Western Hemlock “nurse log” preserved in a custom-built greenhouse.  Its creation is documented through an Art21 video, depicting the staggering amount of effort required to enable such a leafy giant to exist in an urban environment.  This struggle is directly related to the history of the site itself, which used to be the fuel-storage grounds of the Union Oil of California company.  Dion’s piece was one of several in this exhibition which utilized art and architecture as means to reclaim areas once tarnished by industry, while creating a new kind of space for visitors to experience.

In a way, it seems as though museum visitors have access to perspectives that visitors to these spaces themselves do not, such as aerial views and works in progress.  They can observe master-plan of the Jardín Botaníco de Culiacan in Mexico by architect Tatiana Bilbao and note the resemblance of its pathways to the shapes of shadows through leaves, and the Grand Traiano Art Complex of Italy by the firm Johnston Marklee, which has not even been constructed yet.  The collaged photographs and models that are dispersed throughout the exhibition were the dominant artifacts in the Grand Traiano display, creating a tension between the sketches and the visitor’s interpretation of what the space would become.  This tension between replication and actuality is throughout the rest of the exhibit as well.  Baan’s stunning photographs do much to enable visitors to ‘travel’, but I still felt that much of the power behind such works is lost in their translation to tiny models and displays.

I did wonder how the impact of the exhibit would change if such a blend of architecture and nature were created in Pittsburgh’s own environment, and this implication also highlighted the Carnegie Museum of Art in comparison to the spaces depicted. How does the museum interact with its environment, if at all? What does the rise of such ‘museums without walls’ signify for other, more traditional establishments? White Cube, Green Maze ensures that its visitors re-imagine the definition of a museum, even though it does so through documentation rather than real-life pieces.

Bibliography:

  1. Carnegie Museum of Art.” White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. <http://web.cmoa.org/?page_id=5994&gt;.
  2. “The Collection.” Seattle Art Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/emuseum/code/emuseum.asp?collectionname=WEB.Olympic%20Sculpture%20Park&style=single¤trecord=8&page=collection&profile=objects&searchdesc=WEB.Olympic%20Sculpture%20Park&gt;.
  3. Roberts, Lindsey M.  New Museums Blur Lines Between Indoor and Outdoor. N.p., 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. <http://www.architectmagazine.com/exhibitions/new-museums-blur-lines-between-indoor-and-outdoor.aspx&gt;.

Feminist And… At The Mattress Factory

In today’s stereotype-plagued world, most people hear the word ‘feminist’ and immediately have preconceptions about the person underneath the label.  Guest-curated by Carnegie Mellon professor Hilary Robinson, the exhibit Feminist and… at the Mattress Factory aims to erase these preconceptions by presenting the work of six female artists, each born in different generations and hailing from all around the world.

On the third floor, the viewer is struck by the sheer beauty of Parastou Forouhar’s piece.  Born in Tehran and based in Berlin, Forouhar’s work deals with the women’s rights movement, scenes of torture and violence, and critiques fundamental Islam.  Elegant black script in Farsi arches gracefully over the white walls and floor of the room, appearing mysterious to non-Farsi speakers, although it translates to nonsense. Dozens of ping-pong balls with Farsi scribbled on them rolled underfoot, and although I enjoyed watching the balls move across the floor, the smudged quality of the writing detracted from the strength of the wall piece. Forouhar’s writing dares the viewer to apply labels and project meaning onto it, just as the title of the entire exhibition does.  Ayanah Moor’s piece by and about also utilizes text to invoke issues involving her own identity.  Three walls of a room are covered with earthy, rust colored text printed upon newspaper spreads.  The text consisted of several phrases from sources such as poetry by Nikki Giovanni and commentary on Billie Holliday, repeating across the room.  Though visually striking, I struggled to connect the material in Moor’s text with that of the newspapers displayed on the tables throughout the room, before realizing that this lack of connection was significant itself.  Moor’s work addresses a wide range of issues, including gender identity and popular media. I saw the newspapers as symbols for the media, devoid of the identity Moor had printed onto them.  The piece that most directly addresses feminism is Julia Cahill’s Breasts in the Press, featuring a giant replica of the Venus de Milo with huge breasts, upon which two films are projected.  Though inventive and humorous, Cahill’s work seems overly didactic in its message when compared with the other, more subtle works.

Though the diversity of all of the work lent power to the exhibit as a whole, Loraine Leeson’s Active Energy seemed completely disconnected. The piece consisted of video projections, an interactive webcam, and informational pamphlets centered around two themes: dementia and the rising cost of caring for the elderly, and alternative fuel sources.  Leeson is the director of cSpace, an online platform for community collaboration and support.  Though both of the topics addressed are components of her past work, their relation to each other is left unclear.  Leeson makes a jump from one topic to the other without building a bridge for visitors to follow, leaving them lost.

The exhibit is successful in that the work is just as diverse and varied as the backgrounds and identities of the artists themselves.  The wide variety of issues presented by their work offers visitors original voices and perspectives, shattering any preconceptions they may have previously held.

The Cultural District Gallery Crawl

Last Friday night, the noisy crowds milling the streets of downtown Pittsburgh were not on their way to a Pirates game, but to an art gallery.  The Cultural Trust orchestrates these quarterly crawls, which are completely free to the public.  They tend to draw in a very different crowd than that which normally frequents the downtown galleries.

The majority of visitors appeared to be spending only a half hour or so in each gallery before walking to the next, and the focus of many was on socializing and enjoying the night rather than engaging with the art itself.  This may be due to the fact that each gallery had its own agenda, which made ‘art-hopping’ slightly disconcerting.  These agendas varied from the very transparent to the more nebulous, as in “A Matter of Convenience” at Future Tenant when compared to “Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses” at Space.  “A Matter of Convenience” was curated by artists Rose Clancy and Maria Mangano, who also contributed to the show along with local artists Suzy Meyer and Anna E. Mikolay.  The exhibit was a gesture of activism just as much as art, if not more so.  The work was information oriented and very didactic, leaving little room for visitors to stray from the obvious message of the benefits of local food sources and maintaining a balanced ecosystem.  The simplicity of its message left the viewer feeling unsatisfied by several pieces, such as the photography series A Crate A Week, which depicted the grocery boxes delivered weekly by the Community Supported Agriculture group.  Though informative, “Convenience” felt like more of a PSA than an art exhibit.

Space gallery, on the other hand, was visually intriguing to visitors even before entering. The artist collective 181, comprised of Abby Donovan, Brandon Boan, Tom Hughes, and Jason Rhodes created a blend of installation and performance designed to display “dynamic perceptual architectures.” Through a window, passerby could see a giant, crusted sailboat, a man masked in a helmet frozen on a Vespa (moving every so often to startle onlookers) and a moon-like ball onto which projections of itself were swirling.  At a surface level the lack of obvious cohesiveness between the pieces was daunting. Nevertheless, upon entry to the gallery, the world created through digital projections and performance was both visually and conceptually engaging.

In addition to established galleries such as Space and Wood Street, crafters and local businesses participated, including a new barbershop tucked away on the corner of Penn Avenue.   Brandon, owner of the Culturals Elite Salon, featured drawings from “The Art of 954”, casually displayed on tables in front of the shop’s salon chairs.  “This is our first year doing this,” he explained, “we thought it’d be a good chance to get ourselves out there, let people know we’re here.”  The Crawl itself seemed to share Brandon’s focus, as the main experience of the night was more about making connections and engaging with other crafters and artists than it was about the work itself.