Excited Pittsburghers poured into the Cultural District on Friday for the Gallery Crawl, a time to visit galleries, listen to music, and mingle that comes along four times a year. Among the venues I visited, I saw art presented in a diversity of contexts. I had more conventional gallery experiences at Elin Hansdóttir’s Path, hosted by Wood Street Galleries, and Erika Osbourne’s Imprinting Place at 707 Penn Gallery. But I also saw work in unexpected venues, like at The Cultural’s Elite Salon, where paintings hung above customers getting their hair done, or the Catholic Charities Welcome Center, where teen artists talked about their photographs of Yellowstone Park. It was refreshing to find that the Gallery Crawl didn’t cater to any one audience, but welcomed the community and offered an inclusive opportunity to present and celebrate each other’s art.
When I entered The Cultural’s Elite Salon’s exhibition, Art of 954, I thought I was in the wrong place. I saw people getting their hair trimmed and some teens lounging on couches. However, on second glance, I noticed a cheese plate and the paintings of Iesha Grady on the walls. Grady, a local high schooler, recently won a congressional prize for a drawing, which will be displayed in the Capitol this year. One colorful and chaotic painting caught my attention in which tribal faces, hairdressing tools, and bands of strong color are superimposed. At the center, an electric razor with ribbed notches floats next to a grey organic form, which suggests a muscled alien torso with no arms. Its sculpted abdominals are adorned with an on-off power symbol. The painting produces a tremendous sense of depth, creating an incubator-like space in which powerful faces and objects float in an interconnected state. This was the most truthful and striking painting I saw that night.
I waited on line for 30 minutes to enter Elin Hansdóttir’s Path, which was installed in an ex-adult-bookstore at 943 Liberty Avenue. In the gutted, white waiting room a receptionist sat in front of the door to the piece, recording how long each person took inside. When I finally went through the ominous door, I groped my way through the pitch-black corridor moving cautiously forward through the zigzagging maze. At certain corners, a thin sliver of light would come through a wall-length vertical slit. This light guided me but also produced weird shadows that confused my spatial sense, making walls look like passages and vice versa. A low, heavenly drone filled the space and modulated in volume as I progressed, taking sharp turns around corners and losing my sense of direction. Walking towards the end I encountered a wedge-like corridor whose walls tightened around me. This was the drone’s source, which grew overwhelmingly loud as I approached the wedge’s pinnacle. It was an experience that evoked sensations of aloneness and primal fear. Path is a rare and wonderful type of artwork that is activated by each person who experiences it, and wholly defined by these interactions.
The Mattress Factory has had its floors, walls, and ceilings ripped up for its exhibition Gestures: Intimate Friction. Curator Mary-Lou Arscott, a professor of architecture at CMU, has invited 12 artists, activists, and architects to transform the three floors of the museum’s Monterey Building. The site-specific works emerge from the artists’ varied understandings of the building, ranging from striking physical reconstructions to more subtle commentaries on its form and function. From the outset it’s clear that the artists share a certain conceptualization of the exhibition space—one that originates in architectural thought but expands far beyond. “The show opens up the building and then reaches in,” explains Arscott in the press release. The artists of Intimate Frictions truly deconstruct 1414 Monterey Street, fleshing out the interplay between its physical structure and practical functions.
The design of the exhibition comes across as intentional. The installations are specific to their individual rooms, but also feel highly connected because of their shared context: a wall, a room, a building. Each artist transforms a homogenous section of the building into a novel expression of the space. From these individual acts of interpretation emerges a collaborative, multifaceted understanding of the building. Some artists, however, are more successful than others in using this context to elevate their installations.
Activist Gill Wildman’s contribution, cut-and-pasted vinyl text, appears on the surfaces of every gallery yet remains unassuming. At one spot, the words “inhale” and “exhale” appear on two floor vents. Here Wildman playfully attributes a biological function to an architectural element of the building. In other places Wildman’s text intervenes subtly with the other artists’ works, encroaching upon their allotted spaces. His work offers something unusual: a running commentary on the exhibition from the perspective of the exhibition space—the building. His words effectively personify the building, giving it a voice and an attitude.
Pablo Garcia’s work is well intentioned but less successful. Garcia has outlined in black the edges of a window that has been covered with white paint. On the adjacent wall, he has painted an identical outline next to the first, in a perspective such that the second “window” appears to be extending in line with the first. This trompe l’oeil effect works best when standing at the entrance to the room. Although the illusion is effective in expanding the room along an otherwise obstructed axis, it evokes little else beyond its initial novelty.
A dim reality is illuminated by curators Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini in Imperfect Health, a survey of the medicalization of architecture at the Miller Gallery. Polluted cities filled with diseased and obese people, their health affected by the toxic environment and allergens. A growing elderly population, whose need for support and care poses a constant challenge for society. The unmanageable accumulation of waste, the result of unprecedented levels of production and consumption worldwide. All these trends represent a facet of humanity that goes largely unmentioned, but looms menacingly like an intractable problem. Imperfect Health surveys the diverse approaches of architects, urban planners, theorists, and artists to the consequences of rapid modernization, which have thrown architecture into flux. It spotlights tentative solutions to the complications mankind faces as it industrializes and populates urban centers.
The three-floor exhibition is vast and informative, offering almost as much to read as to see. Architectural models, photographs, sketches, videos, and sculptures fill the galleries, bolstered by educational placards and large text that pops up recurrently on the walls. In a straightforward tone, the wall text includes stylized phrases like: “The design of every environment, private and public, is affected by the aging population.” This strong phrase hovers above photographs that depict neat houses and lawns, which register immediately as the sort of homes found in a Florida retirement village. The text is thought provoking and even prescriptive as it guides its viewers to a particular conclusion. Overall, the interaction of the text and work produces a strong political voice, which resonates throughout the exhibition. It is a voice that questions humanity’s treatment of itself and of nature, and a voice that implies the need for radical, collaborative action.
An instructive quality pervades the exhibition, at times approaching the threshold of being overwhelming. And what’s more, the curators have unabashedly foisted a radical ideology onto their audience, as well as lead them to strongly humanistic conclusions. Fortunately however, these parameters do not detract from the individual messages of the works, but rather hone them into something manageable — meaningful. It is the curators’ careful combination of guidance and restraint that allows the individual pieces to retain their integrity yet unite into an articulate, intentional body of work. And from these works, which span the last century and come from across the world, emerges something we all understand: the desire for a more equal, healthy humanity.
As if pulled straight from the Facebook album of a dog-lover, hundreds of photographs of a little white terrier line the walls of Charlee Brodsky’s Artist of the Year exhibition at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The unframed images float in the center of white pages, evoking web browser windows and InDesign mock-ups. Closer inspection reveals that artist’s quotes and excerpts from famous books caption the unframed prints. In the first gallery, one set of captions taken from Frankenstein imposes a narrative onto a group of photographs whose only common subject is the ever-present dog, Max. Walking along the walls, a story unfolds from the combination of Brodsky’s photographs and the borrowed words of Mary Shelley. At times the collaborative effect is humorous, such as when a caption ascribes some conventionally human characteristic to the dog. But unfortunately this short-lived humor is the most memorable aspect of the works, whose gimmick comes across as overdone.
Brodsky is able to surpass an initial identification with Facebook pet photography through her careful appropriation of text. The captions succeed in giving Max a voice, a consciousness, and a prescribed meaning within Brodsky’s imagined narratives. The photos in the main gallery, otherwise visually homogenous, are sectioned by their captions into groups. Each group is a retelling of a well-known story in which Max supplants the original protagonist. This collaborative aspect of the works effectively personifies Max, and appears to be the product of Brodsky’s clean, well-executed technique. On pedestals sit black-bound artist’s books that encapsulate and reiterate the narratives on the wall. Although Brodsky describes her exhibition as being “a reading experience first,” I found that the prints dominated visually, making the black books seem more like an afterthought.
Max’s likeness fills the galleries, bringing to mind stereotyped depictions of religious figures. The striking repetition transforms Max’s image into a sort of icon — a symbol with a mutable significance. But rather than enriching the viewer’s understanding of the photographs or referenced texts, this process adds little depth to either. Despite being propagated and moved from meaningful context to meaningful context, Max’s icon retains its original vacancy. This strange paradox left me feeling ambivalent towards the work, like I had missed some key to appreciating the exhibition. After I viewed the works, I felt as though I could not define what Brodsky had done beyond telling a story or eliciting a laugh.
Don’t let the title of the current exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum Gallery, Natural History, confuse you. Although curator Dan Byers has borrowed the phrase from the neighboring Museum of Natural History, there are no fossils, gems, or lengthy placards to be seen in this group exhibition. Rather, the giant title printed at the entrance begs the question: how might the meaning of a scientific term, Natural History, change in an artistic context, and what new interpretations might this allow?
In the one room exhibition space, the artworks, which span painting, photography, sculpture and video, share a common motif of natural imagery. The press release states that the artists “collectively” address how “humans understand and visualize our natural environment.” Indeed, many of the pieces depict humans in relation to their natural environment, evoking the interplay that arises in the context of a post-industrial society. However, some of the works go further than simply representing this relationship. While the conceptual concerns of the individual pieces are various and largely dissonant, they all hint at the tension that grows out of our interactions with nature. And it is this tension that resonates throughout, and which seems to have been central to the curatorial intentions.
Many of these ideas are exemplified in Llyn Foulke’s massive painting, Les Beaux, whichspans an interior wall. It depicts a mountain range in a restricted blue palette beneath a light yellow sky. A sky-colored hole is cut out of each of two mountain peaks. These holes, which are far too perfect and large to be natural, disrupt the image and confuse the scale and realism of the landscape. The holes, which literally botch a successful representation of the natural scene, become symbolic of the boring, destructive force of human imperfection in nature’s perfection.