Category Archives: Jessica Aguero

Jessica Aguero: Cathy Wilkes: Stimulating, If You Wish (Word Count: 301)

Cathy Wilkes’ untitled installation in the Forum Gallery of the Carnegie Museum of Art is a delicate, history-ridden display of past work, recent work, and loaded objects. The installation chronicles and gently touches upon such heavy topics as the Battle of Somme in World War I, the death of the artists’ father, and the veterans in her hometown in the form of uncanny mannequins, child-sized paintings, and a sprawl of objects from bicycle chains to baby dolls. The work had a clear, successful attention to space and placement, the relationship between viewer and art object carefully considered. I found myself leaning over the displays like a curious child and jumping at shadows in my peripheral vision. Additionally, it was clear that the pieces are loaded with content. The work instilled a strong sense of mystery, history, and emotion within the precious objects it portrayed.

Unfortunately, however, their content is so poetically subtle that it can easily be construed as boring to those who are not eager for answers. Maybe my comparatively short, Facebook-age attention span is getting the better of me, but I found myself reluctant to create my own story for the otherwise interesting rubble Wilkes presented. Like attending the funeral of a man one never knew, there was only so much personal meaning I felt young visitors could attach to the events the work encompassed without wanting to dismiss them as someone else’s experience. A ghost museum of objects deemed important by their display, complete with weary-eyed ushers, the installation provides things to look at but with little indication as to how to receive and make personal sense of them. Still, the silent ambiance, the lack of heavy-handed didactic material, allowed the work to hum a soft, gentle, yet eerie tone in the ears of those willing to listen.

 

 

 

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Jessica Aguero: Factory Installed: True to Its Venue (Word Count: 510)

Since its foundation, the Mattress factory Museum has been keen to the idea of creating the means to free artists of inhibitions, notably in the form of incredible residencies that provide the space, materials, time, and professional assistance to allow artists’ visions to become reality. Essential to this process (and the museum’s foundation itself, in fact) are the museum’s enigmatic co-directing duo, Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk. It seems appropriate that the two, teaming up with independent curator Katherine Talcott, would themselves curate an open call show that brings these ideals to the forefront.

Through residencies during September and October 2011, Factory Installed provided six artists a chance to tear down walls, build up surfaces, and otherwise transform a space in the Mattress Factory of their choosing. Chosen from over 600 applicants, Natalia Gonzalez, Than Htay Maung, Mariana Manhães, Nika Kupyrova, Veronica Ryan, and Pablo Valbuena represent wonderfully diverse backgrounds and create wonderfully diverse work. Despite this, the installations remained delightfully relevant to their only major restriction: the venue itself. The work is about its space, bringing the building to life and almost creating a personality for it, complete with flaws, neurotic tendencies, and physical beauty.

The pieces that stood out to me interacted with their spaces so effectively that I could not tell what parts of the architecture the artist manipulated. The body was referred to in several of the pieces. It is difficult to discern, for example, whether the delicate parts created for Veronica Ryan’s “The Weather Inside” are coming out of or going into the gallery walls. The molds of plumbing supplies, human hair, and the repetition of orifices made me imagine the room itself had bodily needs. Likewise, Nika Kupyrova’s space, “Roadkill,” used objects, lighting, and floor tiling that would normally be found in a bathroom to reference the body. However, these qualities are only secondarily noticeable as Kupyrova skillfully manipulates the objects to seem alien, organic, and very much alive. Similarly, Mariana Manhães’ installation, “Thesethose” provided the Factory with its lungs in an audible and visually stimulating crossover between digitally perceived air, actual airflow, and the idea of machine breathing. A disorienting sprawl of raw mechanisms created parallels between the immediate room and Manhães’ studio in Rio de Janeiro.

Other pieces that did not reference the body as directly did not fail to take full advantage of physical space. With a single, incredibly well constructed projection, Pablo Valebuena’s powerful video installation “Para-site” fooled me into believing with my entire heart that the room was moving. The only departure was Than Hthay Maung’s bread piece, “My Offering,” which made up for its surface-level engagement with the architecture with community engagement, history, and humanitarian purpose.

As a biased adorer of the Mattress Factory, I feel the work in Factory Installed could not be more quintessential to the philosophies, the very core ideas that the museum embodies. True to the idea of installation and the specificity of site-specific art, the walls, the flavor, the textures, the scent, the structure of the Mattress Factory were key to the work.

Rouvalis, Christina. “The House That Moxie Built: Barbara Luderowski and her Mattress Factory.” Arts & Entertainment. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.18 August 2002. http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/20020815barb0818fnp2.asp

“Factory Installed.” Current Exhibitions at The Mattress Factory Museum. Mattress Factory, Ltd. 2011. http://mattressfactory.org/index.cfm?event=Exhibitions

 

Jessica Aguero: Teenie Harris, Bigger than Ever (Word Count: 754)

A leading photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier between the 1930s and 1970s, Charles “Teenie” Harris documented everything from children’s birthday parties and church events to entrances by Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. president at the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower. His technique is undeniable, impeccable, and paired with the sheer volume of downright fantastic photographs, a bit overwhelming. “Big” does not begin to describe Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story, the Carnegie Museum’s fourth Teenie Harris Archive Project exhibition since the museum’s purchase of Teenie’s archive of about 80,000 negatives. I was welcomed to the space by a robust jazz soundtrack (specially commissioned for the exhibition) and the name “TEENIE” spelled out in bafflingly large letters across a wall with small, funnel-like viewfinders looking into the exhibition. The large introductory display attempted to represent the volume and splendor of the work behind it, but it was outdone. The Carnegie Museum not only created an effective way to display 987 precious, individual pieces within a small space, but what seemed like countless ways to experience them. Meanwhile, the exhibition makes every effort to allow visitors to spend as much or as little time with each individual photograph as desired.

The first room was a relaxing introduction to the organization of the rest of the exhibition. Featuring seven articulately timed projection slideshows and seats alone, the jazz music, the relaxed position in which to view the work and the sheer volume of beautiful things to look at made me not want to leave. Each of the slideshows was a series of images, divided into categories that would repeat throughout the exhibition: “Style,” “Urban Landscapes,” “Crossroads,” “Gatherings,” “At Home,” and “Words & Signs.” Each slideshow is articulately timed and ordered. “Gatherings,” for example, begins with social gatherings for youth clubs and sports and ends with riots and protests. While the first room provided an experiential space in which to gather a lot of information at a time, the second room allowed visitors to pick out individual photographs and observe them more intimately, with access to research decade of research performed on the collection. This information could be accessed either by calling a number with a cell phone, getting a headset, flipping through printed books with the same seven topics, or accessing a computer complete with browsing topics and zoom. The timeline setup across the entire wall of the second room, in addition to serving as a reference, contextualized the work within events in Harris’ life and in greater Pittsburgh. The final room featured framed work selected by what seemed like members of Pittsburgh’s creative community, from local photographers to professors and the like. Their commentary provided a quieter space in which to enjoy Harris’ work without being overwhelmed by volume. The pieces were approachable, scaled and hung at a height that was just right for conversation. In addition to response cards and a map of where his images were taken, the space was meant for interaction, and was an incredibly calm contrast to the first.

It occurred to me later that my experience of the exhibition would have been turned on its head had I entered it from the other side, and I don’t think I would have liked it as much. The way the sparkle and shine seized me upon entering was overwhelming but invigorating, like a big city. However, when observing the format of the exhibition, I was reminded of the curious little windows that are larger on one side than on the other. This funnel-like shape, to me, indicates Harris’ very ability to capture moments that simultaneously allow one to interact with a personal scene that is unfamiliar, yet connect with it on a strong human level. The specific and the all-encompassing are directly related, directly captured for one fleeting moment through Harris’ tactile lens. My feelings towards this shape are the reason I would justify the exhibition’s otherwise strange setup: the exhibition is like a giant funnel, or lens if we want to be metaphorical. Splendor and simultaneity immediately take hold at one end while quiet, specific, intimate relationships between human and photograph are articulated at the other. Both qualities are inherent to Harris’ work.

“Unblurred: First Fridays on Penn.” Friendship Development Associates. 2011, online. 7 November 2011. http://friendship-pgh.org/paai/unblurred/

 

Jessica Aguero: Unblurred: A Good Evening to be One of the Locals (Word count: 754)

After spending my first evening in Friendship for Unblurred, a local gallery crawl in Friendship on the first Friday of every month, I discovered a gap between what I thought of the event and what I felt I should think of the event. On one hand, by my extremely high-caliber undergraduate art student standards, most of the work was amateur. I may not be the most experienced of critics, but I had fun imagining posh, well-read gallery hoppers from Chelsea wrinkling their noses at tacky collages and meager acrylic paintings. On the other hand, the event (and likewise the work in it) is not made for a high art crowd, and it doesn’t pretend to be; it’s made for Friendship, for Pittsburgh, for the neighborhood.  The neighborhood likes Unblurred, and, though maybe not for the right reasons, I want to like it too. I say that last bit because, while experience was a lighthearted, homey, and hilarious way to bond with Pittsburgh, the work and its display was far from inspiring with very few exceptions.

Taking place along the late 4000’s and early 5000’s of Penn Avenue, what’s called the Penn Avenue Arts District, Unblurred is not only host to galleries and music venues, but also accommodates what seems like any other kind of venture willing to participate. While some non-galleries participate by putting art on their walls, such as the Eastside Neighborhood Employment Center and the BFG Café, others make themselves relevant to the event just by being open, like a surprise mini flea market with a “sale” on copy paper ($2 a ream!). The downside to this openness is it makes distinguishing locations at which to find artwork surprisingly difficult. Visitors might be surprised by which dark, unlabeled, empty-looking storefronts actually have artwork in them. The International Children’s Art Gallery for example, where I had one of my more interesting encounters, was poorly-lit and had no didactic material with which to even title the large and only moderately alluring figure paintings on display. Richard Rappaport—the man in the rocking seat with a beer in his hand, speaking about how he produced the paintings from drama student models as a senior undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University in 1966—was far more interesting. Conversely, the Eastside Neighborhood Employment Center’s poor presentation dumbed down some of its otherwise strong work. A cold box of half-eaten pizza sat on a table in front of Ayanah Moor’s thought-provoking four-color stone and photolithograph print, “Is Good News Black News” (2011).

Other galleries had their own way of creating relaxed atmospheres, whether it was by providing food, creating interactive spaces, or displaying work with an unthreatening quality. Chips and dip and a guy strumming his guitar were common sights and sounds, butI felt they were particularly effective at the Imra Freeman Center for Imagination, a gallery with a fantastic mosaic entrance that welcomes you into a welcoming space. Pittsburgh by Pittsburgh Artists!, a modest collection unified by the recurring houses, hills, and landmarks particular to the city, was amplified as guitar music and the smell of cider permeated the air and gallery helpers’ children ran around. Assemble, the gallery with the most contemporary array of work by Lizzy Devita, lured visitors in by having gallery personnel ask questions with multiple possible answers like, “Where are you?” and “What’s next?” then invited visitors to paint a part of the wall white. The work was interesting, but not interesting enough to compromise the open, relaxed quality of the entire crawl. Informality was at its peak at The World’s Smallest Art Gallery, which was literally a doorstep with cartoonish drawings on eight-and-a-half by eleven sheets of paper. However, even at more formal galleries, like Modern Formations, work was unashamed in revealing its lack of formal qualities. I was shocked to see the majority of the small, yet colorful, detailed and undoubtedly fun originals of Steph Neary selling for only fifty dollars.

Unblurred is a great way to know Friendship and meet the people that make it a quirky neighborhood, and I feel the event and the location would lose some of its identity if it was top quality. For me, it strongly represents a quality of Pittsburgh that I can’t find in any other city. Despite its shortcomings and imperfections, Pittsburgh is alright with itself, without a trace of shame, longing, or inferiority, no matter how many outsiders might feel differently. However, if you try to judge the Unblurred crawl against any criteria other than its own, prepare to be disappointed.

“Unblurred: First Fridays on Penn.” Friendship Development Associates. 2011, online. 7 November 2011. http://friendship-pgh.org/paai/unblurred/

Jessica Aguero: Gertrude’s/LOT: An Powerful, Yet Identity-confused Exhibition (Word Count: 607)

Despite my immediate attraction to the work in the Andy Warhol Museum’s all-female installment of the Pittsburgh Biennial, Gertrude’s/LOT, I feel compelled to question the very basis of the otherwise flavorful show. After evaluating the exhibition’s counterparts—episodes of the Pittsburgh Biennial at the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Miller Gallery—the visual and material disjointedness of the collection was familiar and almost expected. Jumping from video to painting to installation to photography, albeit disorienting, prioritizes the feeling and emotion of the whole, inviting the viewer to value the unique ways each piece contributes to the space’s atmosphere. With this idea in mind, I found myself appreciating the general ambiance of Gertrude’s/LOT: a colorful hodgepodge of thought-provoking work featuring varying degrees of refreshing confrontation. Despite the exhibition’s success in this respect, I am plainly confused by the relationship between the context, introduced by the title and venue of the exhibition, and the body of work itself; the interaction between Andy Warhol’s work, Gertrude Stein’s legacy, and up-and-coming female artists associated with Pittsburgh seems only partially thought through.

Apart from scholarly comparisons it seems the only tangible relationship between Stein and Warhol is the fact that he silkscreened her iconic face into a collection of portraits in 1980, entitled “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century.” The series, featuring famous individuals who made significant discoveries in their fields like George Gershwin and Albert Einstein, was not even particular to Stein. From there, the similarities between Warhol and Stein, from their enigmatic, yet magnetic personalities to the central, commanding fashion in which they influenced their contemporaries, are mere observation. Additionally, the body of work itself could be vaguely interpreted as relating to Stein’s writing, lifestyle, and her general embodiment of feminine issues such as her homosexuality and influence within a male-dominated world. However, apart from Diane Samuels’ Stein-specific selection for the show, I would not say any of the pieces “honor” her as stated in the exhibition text. It is mildly acceptable that a few of the pieces—though not the strongest work in the show—clearly deal with and respond to Warhol and his work. I feel introducing Stein into the idea of the exhibition at all, let alone making her a central figure, is a weak attempt at uniting the exhibition’s diverse imagery.

That said, many of the pieces in Gertrude’s/LOT are strong and demand praise by using intriguing means to make bold, almost sassy socio-political issue-riddled statements. Consequentially, the equally merit-deserving yet more passive work tended to fade into peripheral vision. Some examples include Diane Samuels’ labor-intensive piece “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” and “Testimony against Gertrude Stein”, Karen Seapker’s painting, Thrown Fore, and the photography selections, which were undoubtedly lovely to look at and admire, but only held my attention briefly amongst grittier, more attention-grabbing pieces like Vanessa German’s rotating vanity and T. Foley’s Easy Pieces. The show repeatedly approached dark, heavy topics with absurdity, including German’s disturbing kinetic sculpture-slash-performance Minstrel Blood: The Greatest Show on Earth Everything You Need For Your Menstrual Show!, which combined familiar imagery with the abject in a Frankenstein-esque manner, becoming a simultaneously distressful, humorous, and alluring allusion to the realty of a woman’s condition. Meanwhile, T. Foley’s ventriloquist act, amplified by its internet presence via Twitter and several live performances, was immediately humorous in its puppet portrayal, with the seriousness of the issue it confronted visible in the empty eyes of the ventriloquist’s herself. Along with pungently powerful video pieces from Alisha Wormsley and Dara Birnbaum, pieces with a bite of satire, violence, or sass made it difficult for the other work to avoid being overshadowed.

Foley, T. “Ventwittoquisms.” 2011, online. 30 October 2011. http://ventwittoquisms.tumblr.com/

The Andy Warhol Museum. “Pittsburgh Biennial: Gertrude’s/LOT.” Exhibitions. 2011, online. 30 October 2011. http://www.warhol.org/webcalendar/event.aspx?id=3861

Samuels, Diane. “Gertrude’s/LOT.” Current Exhibitions. 2011, online. http://dianesamuels.net/current-exhibitions.html

Jewish Museum, The. “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered.” Exhibitions. 2011, online. http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/warholtenportraits

 

Jessica Aguero: Sites of Passage: Installation for Exchange (Word count: 760)

Co-curated by Pittsburgh-based founder of the Firefly Tunnels Project, Tavia la Follette, Sites of Passage continues the Mattress Factory’s legacy of stimulatingly immersive work by creating boundary-surmounting experiences made for cultural exchange. An innovative cross-cultural collaboration between accomplished artists in Egypt and the United States, the Firefly Tunnels Project consists of a series of installation and performance-based workshops and ongoing exchanges that fosters dialogue between the artists, their artwork, and their respective audiences. Given the temporary nature of both performance and installation, documentation and internet circulation is crucial to the talented group’s development and exchange of ideas; la Foyette calls the internet a “system of tunnels that doesn’t believe in the barriers of countries or the obstruction of segregated tongues.” In conjunction with this network, Sites of Passage expands on the Project’s endeavors as a new kind of “tunnel” through which American audiences are exposed firsthand to work that was made to be experienced.

The physical, immediate nature of both installation and performance art make them great mediums with which to traverse cultural boundaries. Though with varying degrees of success, the work communicates complicated issues faced in Egypt by appealing directly to our most human of qualities: emotions and senses. While Noha Redwan and Matt J. Hunter’s subway installation featured in Over My Dead Body (2011) failed to incite the emotion and activity present in its accompanying sound piece by Mark Bellaire and Holly Thuma, for example, creating a somewhat static lack of emotional resolve, Swarm (2011), by Wendy Osher and Nouran Sherif integrates interaction and sound to create a robust experience. The kinetic piece steals audiences’ gazes with the juxtaposition of its gentle, soft, subdued material against its rapid, violent motion, enhanced by the voices of rioters over a newscast. The work’s almost frighteningly tornado-like movement obscures the images printed onto its beautifully flowing silk evoking confusion, speed, femininity, ambivalence, and chaos, all while expressing the nature of the content encompassed instead of merely reciting it. Pieces like Swarm emphasize the qualities of art that neither writing, nor speech, and not even photography nor video can emulate, qualities that tend to shine in exhibitions at the Mattress Factory, but have increased importance given the purpose of the work.

Another important aspect of the work was its informative quality, something that I spent time evaluating the nature of. In light of the Arab Spring—still attracting the global gaze due to its convoluted legacy and the recent death of Moammar Gadhafi—one can assume going into the exhibition the work would be heavy with complex political content the typical, mildly-informed American might not immediately understand. I was relieved to find a fat, wordy packet of didactic information, featuring an artist statement for almost every piece in the exhibition and artist biographies for all participating artists.

After seeing the exhibition once without having read the provided material, I found an interesting relationship between my uninformed interpretations and emotional responses, and the artists’ original inspirations. Mark Bellaire’s haunting Vainglorious Stammering (2011), an installation that took full advantage of the Mattress Factory bathroom by transforming it into a digital tomb, effectively referred to Egypt’s famous legacy of spectacular tombs using a contemporary medium. Its most surprisingly charming quality was the way the space communicated disaster by leaving its contents sprawled across the floor, the projector toppled sideways over a pile of towels and totally exposed, like a personal mess within the dark confines of a cave. After immersing myself in the idea of the tomb as a personal space, reading Ballaire’s articulation about the way Egyptian tombs are built to glorify a solitary leader, and this idea in relationship to the reign of the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expanded upon my original feelings towards the piece. The background material for the pieces, sparse for some works and dense for others, was enlightening and brought captivating new insight and information to American audiences that may not have surfaced without the unique cultural exchange of the Firefly Tunnels Project. On the other hand, I feel this information would disservice its function if it replaced the experience of the work itself.

The immersive, intrusive, and awe-inspiring installations and performances present in Sites of Passage effectively communicate emotion, time and place using visual, physical, auditory cues alone, inciting a pronounced curiosity in the American audiences it is geared toward. In this way they fulfill their role as traversing geographic, cultural, and lingual boundaries not just through the Firefly Tunnels of the internet, but by communicating directly with inherent human commonalities the way art is meant to.

La Follete, Tavia. “About the Project.” Firefly Tunnels Project. 2010, online. 25 October 2011. http://fireflytunnels.net/projekt

Mattress Factory, Ltd. “Sites of Passage.” Current Exhibitions. 2011, online. 24 October 2011. http://www.mattress.org/index.cfm?event=ShowExhibition&eid=101&c=Current

 

Jessica Aguero: A Narrative Collection (Word count: 509)

When asked about the difference between being a curator for his home and a curator at a gallery, permanent director of the Andy Warhol Museum Eric Shiner explained that in a gallery exhibition, the work has to tell a story and educate visitors about its artist or topic of focus as they progress through it, while a personal collection, on the other hand, is more about the conversations unique pieces have with one another. After visiting the young director’s personal collection in his well-groomed, loft-style apartment in Frendship, I could almost hear the colorful hodgepodge of contemporary Japanese art, sleek décor, and flea market gems, laughing and arguing. Yet, I feel there was a great deal more narrative in Mr. Shiner’s collection than his explanation implied. As the gentle yet debonair host chronicled his collection, I had a sense that he also effectively chronicled his life, while his humor and quirky experiences shone through in savory bits throughout.

What is most captivating about the nature of the pieces Mr. Shiner chooses to live with is their short-term history, from purchase to visitor speculation, and the personal relevance they have to him. There is an endearing quality with which he speaks about the work, the myriad places he recalls acquiring them, and the characters he acquires them from. A highlight was a “site-specific” piece by Ginger Brooks Takahashi made specifically for Shiner’s bedroom. While on tour with a musical act called Men, Takahashi collected driftwood from which she carved a beautifully executed series of dildos. After discussions between artist and collector concerning display, the two decided on suspending the dildos on an adjustable plant hanger above Shiner’s bed. Like other work featured in his bedroom, sexual themes instill humor rather than tension, and like other work featured in his collection, there’s a deal of absurdity that is at first alluring rather than off-putting.

While I feel the piece has charm and humor on its own, the story and the friendship between Shiner and Takahashi ads an element to the work and the way the work functions in the body as a whole that is not visible or even existent without Mr. Shiner’s colorful oral rendition of its most recent history. Similarly, the large, nineteenth-century Italian Mary statue that is eye-catching upon entering the space would just be another kitsch object without Mr. Shiner’s description of visitors kissing it back while it adorned his mother’s bedroom in New Castle, Pennsylvania.

The collection is a flavorful salsa of work from incredibly talented local artists like Homewood’s Vanessa German, rockstars like Yasumasa Morimura, and flea market junk that one could easily mistake for a contemporary masterwork. All of it has a precious quality to it, regardless of whether it is an expensive one of a kind thing, it was a unique gift, or if it cost something minimal at an auction. However, I feel this preciousness is incomplete without the richness of his soft-spoken commentary. Without it, we can remain amazed for reasons we might not entirely understand.