Category Archives: Jenny Soracco

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

Amongst newspaper headlines and dated magazine photos, the Hulk has Captain America locked in his vice grip, forcing him to concede defeat. Just a small snippet of Will Steacy’s monumental collage work, the comic of the star-spangled hero is allegory for an America that is struggling to recapture the vitality it once reveled in, one that Steacy aims to expose in his exhibition, No Job No Home No Peace No Rest at the Silver Eye Center for Photography.

Located in Pittsburgh’s South Side, Silver Eye is interested in photography as an expressive medium and as a socially engaged practice that can inform as well as engage. This current work strikes these chords, as Steacy considers his work to be “both a chronicle and a critique of a nation where a once-attainable “American Dream” has been replaced, for so many, by a desperate effort to survive.” Steacy, a Philadelphia-born photographer from a long line of newspapermen has had work in a slew of major publications including CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and Newsweek, among others.

The exhibition borrows its title from The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen, who in turn borrows the emblematic figure of Joad from John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath. Steacy’s work takes up Joad’s mantle, channeling that same overwhelmingly fervent nostalgia for an America where an honest day’s work will bring a better life.

The 170-foot collage installation dubbed “The Beast” overwhelms, submerging the audience in a deluge of images and words, harnessing a relentless march of newsprint to evoke the daily struggle of impoverished, distressed Americans. Through the barrage of media, the audience can find scraps of text that belong to the author’s pen; quick, emotional responses to expressions of Steacy’s sociopolitical thoughts, and, slipped below a slew of cut out images of jailed terrorists, three innocuous slips of paper, each brandishing a lipstick smear and the words “I Miss You”. The result of this sensorial maelstrom is the notion that nothing is entirely political or personal, but rather, the America in the media is a real place with people struggling to get by, against enormous odds.

Given the sense of personal attachment in the collage, there is a quietness and detachment in the prints in the rear room. In glossy, large-format prints, thirty-two works from three series, Down These Mean Streets, All My Life I Have Had The Same Dream, and We Are All In This Together are intended to capture the truths about distress and poverty, exposing the places where grit and visual poetry collide to detail critical issues in the American inner city. The portraits scattered among the evidence of decay are remarkably honest images, but they document existence without divulging narrative. Liz, Philadelphia, 2007 is a striking shot of a windswept young woman, but devoid of any context, she becomes anonymous, another emblem of a depressed America just like the crumbling buildings with which she shares the gallery walls.

The City & The City, Woodstreet Galleries

The urban landscape has long been described as a living organism, with a distinct temperament that morphs both with the flow of time and those that inhabit it. Currently on view at Woodstreet Galleries in Pittsburgh, The City & The City picks apart what belongs to the modern city, and looks at humans carve out spaces in its landscape. The City & The City is a collection of installations by artists who are internationally known for their work in nonfiction, novels and poetry. Caroline Bergvall, Rod Dickinson, Tom McCarthy, Rachel Lichtenstein, Chris Petit, Emma Matthews, Ian Sinclair, and Sukhdev Sandhu delve into a cross-disciplinary exploration of psychogeography.  The works deal with the cultural interaction with urban landscape, which these artists model after London, England, their hometown.

 

The exhibition takes its title from China Miéville’s 2009 fictive crime novel, The City & The City.  Parallel cities share geography, but citizens are psychologically blind to the city they do not inhabit, fabricating a third city that is dictated by perception and perspective. Justin Hopper, the writer and conceptual artist who curated this show, has traversed the line between tangible and intangible. Hopper has a background in journalism that has arguably motivated his artistic and curatorial work to pull at the seams between what we understand via tangible data, and specter-like, origin-less psychological intuition.

 

Night Haunts by Sukdev Sandhu is a study of the nocturnal London and those that populate its lonely and despondent geography, like cab drivers and cleaners. Sandhu, like Hopper, is well known for his journalistic work that is primarily film criticism. In this case, he takes on the role of narrator, illuminating the nocturnal city which surfaces when the sun recedes.  Commissioned by UK curatorial organization, Artangel, this installation was originally manifested as book, and was performed live in Pittsburgh. The second floor of the gallery is filled with the soundscapes that accompany the projected text, which scrawls across the screen with a limping gait. Some words linger while others spill forward, one after the other, calling forth pictures of a cityscape that has multiple faces, not all of them pleasant.

 

French-Norwegian Poet Caroline Bergvall’s Middling English toys with expressions of poetry through print and spoken word. Leaflets flock on the wall; text is punctuated with powerful black ink splotches. While there are headphones mounted on the gallery wall for personal listening, Bergvall’s voice breaks the ambient sounds of the gallery every so often. With the swooping articulation of a street hawker, the half-recognizable words of O Sis! hang in the air. Within the private world of the headphones, Fried Tale borrows from the argot of rhyming slang sci-fi/horror of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novella A Clockwork Orange. Its Middle English cadence permits you to grasp narrative while the muddle of jargon and slang keeps content just out of reach.

 

These, as well as the works in The City & The City, evoke a visual and written poetry that calls to question the objectivity of the architecture of urban life.

American Idols

Eighty-six beady, unblinking glass eyes stare out of forty-three truncated torsos propped up on pedestals. Now on view at the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s Hodge Gallery, John Moran’s glass caricatures of each United States president to date utilize mixed media to emphasize the point of intersection of the private and public lives of the presidents. Comically eerie, their figures crowd around a red carpet with the show title, American Idol, taking center stage behind the figures.

Places like the Pittsburgh Glass Center, or PGC, that focus on the teaching, creating, and promotion of contemporary glass art are few and far between. Their efforts to make the craft accessible to all ages range from workshops in hot glass blowing to flame working and bead making that cater to your average amateur. However, it is the quality of their reputation and facilities that maintain standards of practice that draw world-renowned glass artists to teach and work there. Given Pittsburgh’s extensive history with glass that goes back even further than steel production, PGC helps to keep the craft of glassmaking alive in this post-industrial city.

The Hodge Gallery often features the work of artists who have taught in the studios at the PGC, as is the case with John Moran, who was beginning this body of work at the time when he was teaching an intensive at the center, and was invited to show. Moran’s exhibit dealing with American preoccupation with the image and character of the president is timely, given the imminent elections. A copy of the American Idols occupies a central focal point of the exhibit, and there is even has a ballot box where you can cast your vote for favorite president.

Unlike traditional presidential portraiture that is intended to flatter, these varnished torsos are chopped at an awkward height, branded with nicknames, and are riddled with imagery and text in the folds of their contemporary costumes. For example, the glossy red shirt of Our Father  (a lustrous portrait of George Washington) bares the letters MULE. What might seem to be a trivial detail of the piece is actually a hint at his little-known background as a mule breeder. Similarly, Calvin Coolidge’s bust sports a maroon shirt with “you lose” scrawled in gold over it. The reference comes from a popular story about a woman challenging him on his quiet demeanor, betting that she could get him to say more than two words. While complete decoding of the details of each bust would take more than just a history book, if you ask for a tour of the gallery, your docent will clue you in on some of Moran’s research into the not-so-private lives of our presidential idols. Details that might at first seem arbitrary are in fact conscious decisions made by the artist to help bring these characters to life. Quirky and humorous, this exhibit showcases craft objects that reflect our own efforts to craft the public image of our presidential idol.

Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries

Mention fracking to any Pennsylvanian and you will likely get a strong response. The impact of Marcellus Shale gas drilling (known as fracking) has been felt statewide, fueling countless debates over the past decade. Arguments abound between those who see it was an under utilized, economically effective source of fuel, and those who regard it as an ecological disaster with repercussions that extend beyond our generation.  The highly emotional dispute on Marcellus drilling grates on the neutral walls of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries, where the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project seeks to open a dialogue about the impact that the process has had across the commonwealth.

Sharing in documentary style, photographers Noah Addis, Nina Berman, Brian Cohen, Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson and Martha Rial have displayed the fruits of a yearlong project to capture the social and ecological impact of drilling. The glossy, museum-style prints show the shades of emotion of the people they worked with. The sites of drilling and the people who live by and work on them, the gas companies and the activists opposing them; all of the photos are reminiscent of other work that has been done to document places like the rust belt, where rapid de-industrialization has lead to depressed economic conditions. The indications of where drilling has touched people are subtle to blaring. The ghost of a flame hovers above the water top as the gas that has leaked into spring water combusts at the surface of David Headly’s property in Smithfield. Tough men like John “Denny” Fair break down in tears because of the lack of clean drinking water. The poignancy of these photos is testament both to Scott Goldsmith’s compositional eye, but also to the universality of the emotions they portray, giving the audience a point of entrance to a thoroughly complicated issue.

A rolling landscape illuminated by summer light seems like a visual refuge amongst the difficult content of the gallery. The aerial view shows a luminous pond next to cornfields. Unnaturally geometric for the setting, it is only by virtue of the wall text that the viewer is privy to the grit of the truth. The pond is a holding site for polluted water left over from drilling. Saturated with chemicals, the fluid evaporates and lands as dew on the nearby crops, and is a water source for much of the wildlife in the area. Where the image seems straightforward, the wall text complicates the image; nothing is as simple as it seems.

The bulk of these photos make drilling companies out to be the bad guy, and the amount of desperation as a result of drilling operations is overwhelming. While one might argue that all six photographers are biased, it is hard to sugar coat the situations they documented. Nina Berman’s photos of picnics thrown by gas companies are impotent next to images of a child’s rash-covered face due to contaminated water. While the cleanliness of the gallery setting makes for academic discussion, these gritty, hard-to-swallow photographs certainly strike nerves.

White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes

In the parched, windowless landscapes of contemporary exhibition halls, the void of setting has become integral to the artworks. Since Brian O’Doherty published Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space in a 1976 issue of Artforum, sterile contemporary gallery spaces have been evaluated and criticized many times over. Consciously blocking out reality, they rely on the lack of context to have autonomy and create their own rules.

The exhibit, White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes at the Heinz Architectural Institute, is a showcase of six museums that are challenging the boundaries of the cube. The Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Stiftung Insel Hombroich in Germany, Benesse Art Site Naoshima in Japan, Instituto Inhotim in Brazil, Jardín Botánico de Culiacán in Mexico and Grand Traiano Art Complex in Italy are each featured with an area of the gallery floor.  Through architectural models, blueprints, photographs, videos, and touch screen kiosks, this exhibit challenges the idea that a sterile “white cube” environment is in fact what is best for art. These six museums are exemplary of a growing trend in museum design that posits integration and inspiration from nature as favorable and fruitful for both the art and the audience.

So the psychological Ziploc of the museum has been ripped open to let the foliage in. But what exactly is the “green maze”? The term conjures images of pristine forests, green spaces that sprawl beyond human fingertips. However, that is not true in the case of these six sites. They’re all built on former brownfield or industrial sites, a fact that was perhaps not celebrated enough in the exhibit, considering the legacy of industrial cleanup for which Pittsburgh has become the poster child.

The sites chosen for this exhibit are unique and monumental, and require someone like the Julius Shulman Photography Award winning photographer, Iwan Baan, to document them. Although his focus in architectural photography only began in 2004, he has become well known for his ability to capture a building in a narrative manner that illustrates the function of a space, not just its form. In the glossy museum prints, children play with bright yellow umbrellas by Dan Graham’s mirrored work in the Jardin Botánico and the sun sets on families picnicking at the inlet at Olympic Sculpture Park.

Aside from the multitude of prints that document the sites, the meticulously crafted architectural models give visitors a sense of the museum space and physicality. At Benesse Art Site Naoshima the water droplet inspired Teshima Art Museum is nestled in between once fallow rice terraces, but the exhibit gives viewers the unique opportunity to see it stripped down to its basic form as the architects originally conceived it. Linked to increasing devotion to ecological issues and global conversations about sustainable and engaging architecture, this exhibit is a small but comprehensive sample of a much larger trend. With growing concern over messages of priority imbedded in museum architecture, this is a taste of the greener future ahead.

Feminist And…

Jenny Soracco

Practices of Art Criticism

Prof. Hilary Robinson

10/15/12

 

Given a different title, visitors to Feminist And… at the Mattress Factory might never have described the exhibition as feminist. Artists Ayanah Moor, Julia Cahill, Betsy Damon, Loraine Leeson, Parastou Forouhar, and Carrie Mae Weems sidestep the stereotyped tenants of feminism and build work from a frame of mind that was established during the women’s movement and endures today.

Julia Cahill’s Breasts in the Press is perhaps the most outspokenly ‘feminist’ piece of the show, contesting the objectification of the female image. A classical sculpture’s cosmetically enlarged breasts serve as the screen for a music video featuring the artist performing of her version of the Black Eyed Peas song My Humps. Wittily didactic, the artist coats her own breasts with ink, making them into a stamp as she sings about media objectification of female mammary glands that are lacking the respect they deserve.

The beat pulsing from Cahill’s piece bleeds into the pensive mental space of Ayanah Moor’s by and about. Newspaper, curled with rust-colored inks, layered like shingles on a rooftop. Quotes from African American poets, musicians and activist women are removed from their context and cloak the pages of the New York Times. The text is quiet, with phrases like “Endness blackness for my love,” evoking longing over the endless march of newsprint.

Text also covers the walls and floor of Parastou Forouhar’s Written Room, yet it evokes an entirely different experience. Elegant Farsi script becomes a skin over the blank white space, and ping-pong balls similarly decorated in black script skitter across the floor like frightened mice. The spherical shape emphasizes the un-graspable nature of Farsi script for westerners. Its aura of the exotic and ornamental distances the audience, but its surface is deceptive. Where one expects to find deep meaning in the text, it turns out that the phrases are nonsense, gobbledygook. In a lecture regarding her work, Forouhar stated, “For me, the beauty lies in the absence of meaning. Memory of my mother tongue, which has lost its function for me living in exile. The meaning cannot be grasped.” For Forouhar, art is about having the possibility to change the rules of the game, challenging the gaze of the audience.

The other works in this exhibition also transform and challenge: Leeson’s work with dementia patients vocalizes their personal experiences through projected installation, Weems tells layered stories about memory where spectral images are sewn together with fog and snow, and Damon builds a stream in the basement to open conversation about the need for responsibility in water usage.

‘Feminist art’ has been boxed in as one of the -isms; bounded to the past as a movement that has come and gone. However, this show testifies to the currency of feminism as a worldview, a tool for critical analysis that is alive and well today that forms the underpinnings of the work of many socially engaged artists. Gender is not a label, but a force that flows through anything and everything.

Pittsburgh Cultural District Gallery Crawl, Friday September 28th

Knowing which end to begin with for a buffet can be problematic and awkward. With the variety of dishes before you, where should you strike your fork first? Seeing the spread, and seeing whom else has showed up to share dinner with you are almost equally as tantalizing.

With over twenty stops, the Pittsburgh Cultural District Gallery Crawl is akin to an overwhelmingly large buffet. Art openings, DIY art projects, theatrical performances, live music, dance, and dance lessons: these various offerings made up an evening about spectacle (that hook meant to draw you in closer).

Woodstreet Galleries’ The City & The City, curated by Justin Hopper, showcased a number of works about London produced by Londoners whose typical realm of expertise lies in writing. Their works evoke a sort of parallel universe, pointing out the urban structures that are riddled with idiosyncrasies. Rachel Lichtenstein’s Sight Unseen gave an exposé on the world of Hatton Garden, homage to the craft and tactility of the diamond and jewelry quarter. The tongue-in-cheek of Currency at 937 Liberty was inviting, like an exclusive party that suddenly opened its doors to the public to share clever and witty sculpture and painting.

One hiccup in the attempt to make the crawl an approachable event was perhaps Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses: An Architectural Interlude of Time and Digital Coda. With such a heavy title, one might correctly assume the need for packing their perceptual machete for a trip to Space Gallery. A mouthful and an eyeful, this collective show by Brandon Boan, Abby Donovan, Tom Hughes, and Jason Rhodes was difficult to engage with. If there was a point of entry, it was hidden amongst the screens, projectors, and other emissions of colored light and abrasive sound. Perhaps the only immediately engaging part of the exhibition was a pale green boat, so crusted in paint it was shedding onto the rumpled oriental carpet it ran aground upon, evocative of a childhood dream rudely awakened.

Aside from exhibitions at the galleries in the Cultural District, a sign projected on the brick walls of an empty lot proclaimed Project Pop-up’s Night Market. The small alleyway was crowded with smells, all scheming for attention and patronage for the local eateries offering their wares. Smaller jewelry and print vendors were sandwiched in between, all too easy to miss among the throngs of people munching on treats. It was in this pile of people that one could hear people voicing their opinions about the crawl. First-timers commented on how approachable the event was, a really enjoy8thable evening to introduce them to the area’s offerings. At the same time, some of those who are deeply embedded in Pittsburgh’s intimate and, at times, claustrophobic art world shrugged it off as overcrowded and much too noisy to fully enjoy the art. When you invite people to a spread, people are bound to disagree on what the best dish was, or if there should have even been a buffet at all.