Category Archives: Esther Michaels

Esther Michaels: Teenie Harris (Word Count: 613)

Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, is at once commercial, with Teenie having been a photojournalist for the Pittsburgh Courier and the jazz music playing at the exhibit having been commissioned specifically for the show, and yet completely unmarketable as a photography show as it does not offer much as authentic art object. Harris, Pittsburgh legend, was not known for prints, but rather for the amazingly broad narrative of the Black community of the Hill District in Pittsburgh over more than forty years, from before and through the Civil Rights Era. His collection of images is unparalleled, no other exists on this scale documenting Black American culture with less agenda. The importance therefore is obvious, yet the silver prints that Harris did make are limited and of mediocre quality.

Here then, the Carnegie was posed with a unique position: the need to exhibit this collection and the inability to do so in a normal museum context. There limitations created an opportunity for the museum to produce the revolutionary show that they did. As you enter into the Heinz Galleries, Teenie’s presence is literally overwhelming with him name in block letters spanning the divider in front of you and his photograph represented floor to ceiling on the walls. Walking further into the darkened room, you see seven large wall projection categories that circle through the almost 1,000 images the museum chose for the show out of the nearly 80,000 negatives. Jazz music brings the images to life, further developing the time and place of the projected images.This first room allows the audience to develop their own narratives, to piece together the images into some sort of framework about a time in Pittsburgh they may or may not have known.

In the second gallery space the same 987 images have been digitally printed and catalogued in a timeline from the 1930s to the 1970s on the surrounding walls. Each image was given a call number that could be used through printed catalogues, provided headsets, or the computers placed in the middle of the gallery to find more information. Here the scope of this project is made obvious, and not only is the viewer invited to search for information about specific images but also asked to provide any information they may know about the people and events they see. The third room is where the intense viewing experience fell apart for me. Here the viewer is shown a group of prints made by Harris that have been chosen by a group of educators, artists, and the like, each of whom wrote a piece about why they chose a particular image. In this room, the museum seems to have turned on its head. While the entirety of the exhibit up to this point was wonderfully open and allowed the viewer to shape their own experience, here the museum tells the viewer what to see, what to think, and how to qualify the work. It is stultifying, and I am horrified to imagine what a different experience the show would have been entering from this end.

With the breadth of images, the variety of presentation modes, and the shear amount of information to be discovered, the Teenie Harris retrospective is certainly a show to take your time with. This show is amazing not just for the photographs, but for the experiences that are encouraged. The audience is at once provided a history, allowed to form their own story, and given the opportunity to add to the history that the museum has provided. Also, the show is truly revolutionary as a photography exhibit, and offers an exciting shift for the traditional museum guidelines.

“About the Archive.” Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive. Carnegie Museum of Art. <>.

“Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story.” Exhibitions. Carnegie Museum of Art. <>




Esther Michaels: Cathy Wilkes (Word Count: 295)

For the 67th edition of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s ongoing Forum series, which aims to introduce Pittsburgh to a global network of contemporary artists, the museum chose Irish artist Cathy Wilkes. Her untitled installation, on view in the Forum Gallery in the museum’s lobby, is a combination of older pieces and newly made works. With sculpture, paintings, and other objects clustered into the sparse space, it at first engendered a fearful discomfort that impeded further comprehension of the installation. Three sculptural figures, two stoic shrunken male veterans and one distressed tense female, possess a ghostly quality as the viewer navigates the space around these frozen challenging bodies. Long low tables provide a vulnerable position for other works, demanding close and intimate attention as the viewer kneels, bends, and repositions themselves around writings, books, rusted artifacts, and more.

There is a powerful materiality of all of the work, and while the small abstract paintings seemed more surface than the rest of the installation, with the distressed nature of the paint and reworked canvas, they provide a welcome break from the raw emotionality of the installation. The canvases are scarified in a similar way to the rest, with antique objects of war mixing with the domestic to create an anthropological chronology imbued with the personal. The installation makes the artists personal political, with objects from her family and the Battle of the Somme and WWI surrounding issues of loss and birth, motherhood and family, war and destruction. Displayed in a minimalist sterile organization, the work is only the more haunting. There is a sense of the damage that is done through anthropologic documentation, and it seems that while more and more is offered to aid understanding as I continued to look, meaning continues to escape me.

Byers, Dan. “Cathy Wilkes: Softness, Pain.” Carnegie Museum of Art. Web. <>.

“Cathy Wilkes, November 12, 2011–February 26, 2012.” Carnegie Museum of Art. Web. <>.

Esther Michaels: Factory Installed (Word Count: 482)

On October 28 the Mattress Factory opened their newest exhibit, Factory Installed. Curated by the museum’s co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk, as well as independent curator Katherine Talcott, the show is the final product of an open submission call for artists, to which over 600 artists responded. After narrowing that number down to six, the curators worked with the international group to select areas within the museum for the artists to create their site-specific installation pieces to be developed in residency over a period of two months.

Working within the confines of each of their designated areas inside the museum, each artist seems to have gleaned aesthetic inspiration from the spaces themselves as well as the work in the permanent collection. Despite the fact that each piece is an installation meant to develop and shape an environment, they are minimalist in style, with limited, muted palettes and underwhelming materiality. Than Htay Maung’s piece, My Offering, patterning the walls with begging hands seems obvious. Aesthetically beautiful, with white plaster molded hands jutting out of white painted walls as so many limbs, the organization frustrates the viewer who searches for some order. Each hand holds a loaf of bread and is meant to symbolize the countless hungry people around the world, which they do rather literally. This piece and Veronica Ryan’s piece, The Weather Inside, both take up a limited amount of space. Ryan’s piece is restricted in scale, with concrete cut-outs and various other small elements offered more as sculptural pieces than an installation. In physicality and experience, Ryan’s work is difficult to grasp.

Natalia González’s Light Recordings in the museums basement was a disarmingly simply collection of lights, mirrors, and steel bars suspended by wire and attached to the walls. In the unrefined industrial environment of the basement the piece could be mistaken for building foundations. The space was jarringly uncomfortable, as every movement above made the viewer think the ceiling would come crashing down at any moment. As you walk through the space you are reminded of ‘walking into the light’ and the various obstacles in so doing.

Most successful was Nika Kupyrova’s Roadkill, as it transformed the entirety of the space. Here consideration was paid to lighting and flooring in developing a mood and feeling for the piece, as the artist installed fluorescent bulbs and white tiling. Found objects are transformed into living organisms, picturing microscopic bacteria on the macroscopic scale. The piece has a clinical quality, at once reminding the viewer of a doctors office and a bathroom. For an exhibit that will be up for six months, Factory Installed is a small show, but is a perfect representation of the museum as a whole and its mission of purporting ‘art you can get into’. Meant to create a range of powerful experiences, some of the installation in Factory Installed were more powerful than others.


Esther Michaels: Unblurred is Reblurred (Word Count: 758)

First highlighted by the expansion of the Pittsburgh Biennial this year, now further evidenced by the growth of Unblurred, a monthly evening gallery crawl, the Pittsburgh art and cultural scene seems to be growing. Unblurred, which takes place the first Friday of every month, is a free night of art, entertainment, and socializing usually held in Garfield and Bloomfield, but this month expanding to include Friendship, Lawrenceville, and East Liberty venues. Buildings on the 4000 to 6000 blocks of Penn Avenue open their doors to the public, selling art, giving away drink, and providing music and performance.

In a dizzying two hours I worked from the middle of the action outwards, hitting over a dozen venues in the process. Having never experienced Unblurred before, but knowing the area, I was curious. The first gallery, Assemble, which housed the work of Lizzy De Vita was discouraging. The gallery-goers were prodded into the space with interviewers demanding answers to vague questions. The experience, surely a part of a developing art piece, was oddly reminiscent of being examined at a doctor’s office. In a participatory piece De Vita invites the audience to paint a white wall white as she snaps photographs behind them. From the questions to the whitewashing, the exhibit seemed unfinished and ill-conceived, and left the viewer with an overwhelming discomfort. The audience, rather than experiencing the art, becomes part of the experience as they are used for De Vita’s own machinations.

Thankfully, this was the low-point in an evening that only got better. At the International Children’s Art Gallery artist Richard Rappaport, whose large format semi-gestural portrait paintings of women were on display, stopped to talk to us about his work and his time at CMU when it was still Carnegie Tech. This is a delightful current that runs through much of Unblurred: at most of the galleries the artists are present and willing to talk to you. At the World’s Smallest Art Gallery, the crawl-goers were invited to take a single step inside, into the doorway between the street and the door upstairs, where two young artists had tacked up their drawings of superheroes. This space demonstrates the great humble acceptance of the event, as the most unlikely of spaces is transformed into an institution of High Art.

Though maps are printed in the Bulletin, a local paper, they are unnecessary for navigation as you can head in either direction down Penn and stumble upon events in the unlikeliest of places. In fact the most exciting places are among the hidden treasures, like a pop-up flea market, that are not on the program for the night. Another gem was a painted wooden cart set up on the sidewalk from which an artist was giving out psychic drawings. These brief moments encompass the modest and wholly unpretentious charm of Unblurred. While some galleries, such as the Irma Freeman Gallery, take a more businesslike approach, by providing clean white walls for the art and an exhibition guide listing prices to viewers, overall the experience leaves one less aware that these spaces are essentially retail outlets. Instead most of the time you feel like you are receiving a gift, as these artists allow you into these seemingly intimate happenings. At Modern Formations, Christian Breitkreutz and Steph Neary’s exhibit Butterfly Kingdom, mixes the two artists similar small paintings on the walls. As you move further into the space, the lighting becomes dimmer, the mood lighter, and the room louder. Slightly raucous and unrefined, the audience seemed to be a collection of the artists closest friends, rather than a gallery full of strangers.Butterfly Kingdom shares with many other spaces at Unblurred what might at first be mistaken for carelessness, but in reality is a refreshing respite from the conventional and expected art display.

Unblurred is truly an emblematic Pittsburgh event. Like the neighborhoods it calls home, this eclectic variety-show is rough around the edges. The area is somewhat shady, the gallery spaces are anything but pristine, the art is not what you would see at a museum. The event breathes life into Garfield, as a hugely diverse group of people flood the streets for a night of free food, drink, art, and performance. Unblurred embraces the reality of Pittsburgh, and bridges the gap between a high-art practice and the area’s working-class feel. While the majority of the art might not be masterpieces, these Friday nights charge the air with an excitement for the local art-scene and community that is beyond compare.

“Unblurred: First Fridays on Penn.” Penn Ave Arts. 2011. November 4, 2011. <>

Esther Michaels: Andy Warhol Museum: Gertrude’s/LOT (Word Count: 598)

The Andy Warhol Museum’s exhibit Gertrude’s/LOT (Sept. 17-Jan. 8), the last of the five Pittsburgh Biennial shows, honors Pittsburgh native Gertrude Stein through the work of 22 local women artists. Though the work traverses all media it is united by several threads; each artist, either currently or formerly, worked in Pittsburgh and all the work was made with the intent to challenge cultural conventions. The work functions expansively, often moving outside the walls of the museum, to provoke the audience. Jill Miller’s Milk Truck, a traveling community installation, provides a haven for breast-feeding mothers. The truck exposes the flawed societal discomfort with public breast-feeding, a most natural and necessary nurturing act.

At times, the pieces seem too reductive, posing as facsimiles for the pieces that work as their motivation. The didactic information for Eileen Lewis’ photographs mentioned that she studied under Lisette Model, who also taught Diane Arbus, Lewis’ favorite photographer. The work makes this association obvious and unavoidable. While the images of her children and their friends are captivating, they seem derivative. Not only does she shoot with the same camera and film Arbus did, but her images seem like carbon-copies of Arbus’. Take the image of two little boys in drag, with stuffed chests and fur shawls, or one of two young girls, perhaps twins, wearing identical 80s outfits, and you will recall Arbus’ image Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967.

Similarly imitative are Elise Adibi’s Oxidation Paintings, echoing Warhol’s own Oxidation Paintings. Here, however, the association is deliberate in a way that Lewis’ was not. This repetition, firstly of Warhol’s process, is heightened by a repetition in process and patterning that was not evident in Warhol’s abstracted images and Adibi’s wall text, a quote by Gertrude Stein on repetition and change as history and herstory. Here the artists female physicality becomes an agent of transformation, as she paints with urine, at once mathematically organized and corporeally erratic.

Carrie Schneider’s photograph Untitled (Library), 2007, deals with mimicry at an essential level. From her series Derelict Self, the image deals with her relationship with her brother as a younger sister. Here mimicry becomes “a way to both gain and lose a sense of oneself” as she imitates her brother’s actions. T. Foley’s The Dummy Is Present is a live performance re-interpretation of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present (2010). Using Chatroulette, Hector the ventriloquist dummy is placed on stage in front of an audience as he reenacts the performance. Part of the series Easy Pieces that explores social media outlets as forums for Foley’s work, this piece becomes not only a satirical critique of Abromavic’s performance equating her to the dummy, but an exploration of intimacy, voyeurism, and relations in the information age. Here, more than the other re-interpreted pieces of Gertrude’s/LOT the imitation becomes more complex and interesting than the original piece.

Dulce Pinzón re-appropriates the ideal of a superhero, applying the paradigm to Mexican immigrant workers in post-9/11 New York in her series of color photographs, Superheroes. The images are eloquently beautiful and witty, picturing these people preforming low-wage jobs, as they epitomize an American ideal. Set in mostly monotone scenes, the immigrants become larger than life as the bright costumes bring them to the fore. Working to help their families and support their communities, the subjects emerge as previously unsung heroes. Though mimicry seems to be a major theme for the exhibit, Gertrude’s/LOT is a complex show, with many artists working in all possible mediums and exploring varied issues of transgression.

Lewis, Eileen. “My Story.” Eileen Lewis. Web. <>.

“Superheroes.” Dulce Pinzon. Web. <>.

“The Andy Warhol Museum.” Biennial 2011 | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Web. <>.

“Work: Derelict Self.” Carrie Schneider. Web. <>.

Wilkinson, Rachael. “Hear Art Everywhere with Locally Toned.” Technology in the Arts | Blog, Podcast, and Workshops Exploring Arts Management and Technology. Web. <>.



Esther Michaels: Mattress Factory, Sites of Passage (Word Count: 754)

The Mattress Factory’s show Sites of Passage, co-curated by Pittsburgh performance artist Tavia La Follette and contracted curator Katherine Talcott, features the work of artists involved with the Firefly Tunnels Project, an organization that builds ‘metaphorical passageways for the exchange of ideas through the language of Performance Art’ between the American and Egyptian artists. Using art as a common language, these artists begin a dialogue of symbolic communication aimed as peace through the virtual art lab of the Firefly website, beginning before the Egyptian revolution. The first tangible exhibit of the organization at the Mattress Factory, is presented in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, at the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and prior to upcoming elections in both Egypt and the United States.

The works shown at the Mattress Factory are translations from the virtual gallery to material works. On the opening night of the exhibit, attendees were made to pass through a customs of sorts, which ultimately valued each audience member individually, mimicking the cultural prejudgment of airport security. Passport Agency (2011) by Amado Al Fadni sets the tone for the exhibit, a serious political issue handled with wit and agility. It is interesting to note that none of the Egyptian artists were able to come to Pittsburgh to install. Reinforcing collective dialogue within the group, Pittsburgh artists installed their work by following design layouts.

Some of the most thought-provoking pieces, are those that completely envelope the viewer, by American artists. While this may have something to do with the fact that these artists were present to install, it is also indicative of the communal visual language of food, eating, and power.  subRosa co-founder Hyla Willis’ piece, Grenadine (2011), transports the viewer through a passageway surrounded by dried pomegranate plants stripped bare of its fruit, and into a dark room where the floor is covered in sandpaper. The viewer is forced to either disrupt the space with movement or to stand still, to watch as the pomegranate is violently colonized by little American flag toothpicks and do nothing. They are forced into the fruit, puncturing its surface as it begins to bleed. Depleted of its resources, made less than whole, and is then ripped apart, the pomegranate is further colonized by flag toothpicks. Playing with language even in the absence of spoken word, Grenadine contrasts grenade as the French word for pomegranate and the English word for a weapon, the pomegranate as an exotic fruit brought to the New World by invaders, the colonization of human history as a violent action that personifies the fruit. The pomegranate is also a symbol of fertility, and the viewer is transported into a space where from removing the vines from the plant, to the actual destruction of the fruit, humanity has stripped the plant bare and made it sterile and impotent, evidence of Willis’ feminist leanings.

In Andrew Johnson’s Descension (2011), the viewer is again immersed in a space, this time decorated as hookah lounge/harem. The space is instantly comforting, covered in pillows, warm and dark, with a faintly familiar, calming and yet unrecognizable scent. Invited to lay down, the viewer looks up at a projected video loop of camels eating. The skyward point of view keeps only the camels and sky in the frame, as the viewer is buried by the refuse of the animals’ meal. Soothing music from another piece combined with the noisy chomping of the camels contributes to the atmosphere, and the viewer is made completely at ease though the environment seems reminiscent of a funeral burial, the audiences own ‘descension’ back to the earth.

Other pieces make obvious the language barriers present in a visual context. Wendy Osher and Nouran Sherif’s Swarm (2011) is evocative of Whirling Dervishes, Sufi dancers, as patterned silk spins around from the ceiling and layered unidentifiable audio plays. All attempts to make sense of the images of the silk and the voices result in further confusion, even motion sickness. With Dervish translating literally to ‘one who opens the door’, we are provided entry into a place that we do not understand. Sites of Passage highlights the natural ability of visual literacy, specifically through art practice, to communicate messages universally. The installations, though often dealing with regional politics and cultural issues, effectively convey their messages to the audience, no matter the viewers cultural background. Or at least, the artists allow space for a translation of the works meaning through the perspective of the audiences own political and societal leanings.

Firefly Tunnels. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <>.

Mattress Factory. PR and Marketing. Sites of Passage. Print.

Shaw, Kurt. “Pittsburgh Artist Works with Egyptians on Language of Peace.” Trib Live. Pittsburgh Tribune, 18 Sept. 2011. Web. <>.

“Sites of Passage.” The Mattress Factory Art Museum. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <>.

“”Sites of Passage” to Open September 9th, 2011.” Firefly Tunnels. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <>.


Esther Michaels: Eric Shiner’s Collection (Word Count: 500)

The association is unavoidable; There is something very Warholian about director of the Warhol Museum Eric Shiner’s loft. Trading the silver coated walls and furniture of The Factory for light-wood paneling, Shiner’s apartment itself is an art piece, with high ceilings exposing supports and natural lighting, large windows, and art covering everything. His collection, concentrated in Japanese contemporary art and photography but including art surrounding gender and race politics and queer theory, begs the question of what art is. The careful balance of antique and contemporary pieces, the blending of high and low, creates a truly insightful and stimulating viewing experience.

Shiner’s connections in the art world are great, and each piece that he has comes with a story. Ain Cocke, who Shiner went to graduate school with at Yale, is storing his thesis installation in the loft. Ginger Brooks Takahashi created a site-specific installation in Shiner’s bedroom of her driftwood dildos. Stefano Castronovo, who made jackets for the likes of Andy Warhol, created a gold leather jacket for Shiner. Shiner is a friend of Yasamusa Morimura’s, and he has numerous original polaroids and prints of the famed photographers in his collection.

He considers his collection with a refreshing levity and humor. Whenever artist Brendan Fernandes comes to the loft he yells at Shiner for putting his sculpture of a plastic deer wearing a white resin African mask, from the artists installation Neo-Primitivism II, in his potted floor plants. Though his curatorial background is apparent in his presentation of the art, Shiner does not wish to live in a museum. His loft has large windows, and he has no qualms about letting the light shine into the space. He is judicious in his placement of and relation of one piece to another, while sometimes his organization is simply based on where there is space left on the walls. His more relaxed approach to his collection lends an air of ease and comfort to a collection that can be at times controversial.

And while the work often broaches heavy topics, it does so with the same jocularity and sophistication. Take for instance his sculpture by Zoe Leonard of a black garden gnome. It satirizes the racist exaggerated aesthetic of a black lawn jockey with the mythologic history of gnomes. Similarly, a photograph hanging on Shiner’s wall which from far away seems to be simply a black Playboy bunny symbol. As you move closer to the image, it becomes apparent that the bunny is painted around an asshole.

Despite the breadth of Eric Shiner’s collection, each piece works seamlessly with the next, creating a dialogue within the space of his loft. From antique religious icons that he has found at flea-markets, to gifts from artists and friends, to furniture that he says he has never spent more than $500 on, Eric Shiner’s collection is proof that art is truly defined and understood by its context, and artistic appreciation goes far beyond gallery walls and art-market valuation.

“Driftwood, Parallel Play at Silvershed.” Ginger Brooks Takahashi. 27 Oct. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2011. <>.

Feinstein, Jessica. “School of Art Thesis Show Paints a Pretty Picture | Yale Daily News.” Yale Daily News. 9 Apr. 2004. Web. <>.

“Jackets with a New and Backwards Look.” The New York Times. 06 Mar. 1985. Web. 18 Oct. 2011. <>.

Syperek, Pandora. “Brendan Fernandes: The Nature of Culture.” Canadian Art. 7 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Oct. 2011. <>.