Category Archives: Karen Tarkulich

Karen Tarkulich: Just Below the Surface: Pittsburgh Art Criticism (Word Count: 3924)

In order to have a sustainable and successful art community with the potential to develop instead of becoming stagnant or stilted, there needs to be a public discourse and criticism of art. Art cannot evolve without a context within which to grow—without one, there is only so far art can evolve before it becomes entirely stilted and obsolete. Pittsburgh, however, appears to be the exception to the rule. While the city maintains a growing art community, the art criticism and public discourse of the city is arguably invisible, scattered, infrequent at best and, in essence, just not good enough. How, then, has Pittsburgh managed to sustain a vibrant Art community? Is Pittsburgh’s art criticism in as dilapidated a state as people seem to think? In order to answer these questions, we must examine the current state of Pittsburgh’s art criticism in detail so as to understand from where it has developed and subsequently determine the best course of action to take.

Art criticism in Pittsburgh that does exist does so in print, on-line, video and television, but leaves much to be desired. First, a distinction needs to be made between simply writing about art in Pittsburgh and writing art criticism. Mentioning does not equate to critiquing or posing a valid argument. So, despite the fact that many Pittsburgh-based publications mention the arts, these types of articles do not fall in the category of criticism. These articles, then, cannot be discussed as if they were art criticism, despite the fact that many erroneously consider them as such, immediately and noticeably limiting the sheer amount of writing that can actually be considered criticism in Pittsburgh.

One of the first and most consistent sources that comes to in Pittsburgh is print publications. Specifically, Pittsburgh’s newspapers, which contain a range of articles about the arts on a consistent basis, Certain newspapers, like the New Pittsburgh Courrier, rarely, if not never, have pieces that make an argument or active critique about art that would qualify them as criticism. Even smaller papers, like The Northside Chronicle, do make a consistent effort to provide coverage about the art scene, managing to cover most major exhibits around the city. Like the New Pittsburgh Courier, however, The Northside Chronicle and other such newspapers simply post reviews of exhibits, which serve more to provide the reader with information and attempt to get them up and, ideally, out the door to the exhibit being mentioned.

Despite the bulk of the articles about art being written for newspapers. seeming almost promotional in nature, the authors clearly attempting to coerce readers into actually visiting the exhibitions with copious praise and a profound lack of actual critique, some well written articles do critically examine the arts. Major newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Pittsburgh City Paper and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publish pieces regularly about exhibitions going on at the more prominent exhibition spaces around the city and often actually have articles that would qualify as criticism. Hands down covering the most exhibits of any print publication in the city, the Pittsburgh City Paper offers consistent and thorough coverage of essentially everything arts-related event or exhibit going on in the city. Not only is the coverage thorough and consistent, many of the pieces go a step further to offer arguments and observations about the art, the artists and the exhibitions in an interesting and engaging manner. A notable shortcoming (or not, depending on how you look at it) of the Pittsburgh City Paper is that it more or less is limited in scope to exhibitions within the city of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh City Paper never write about events or exhibits in other cities, even ones that are relatively close.

The next print publication that affords some semblance of legitimate art criticism instead of restatement of basic logistical facts is the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Despite not having as many quality articles with the frequently of the Pittsburgh City Paper, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette nonetheless manages to present its readers with reviews about exhibitions going on around Pittsburgh that are decently written. Although the reader is often still aware that the author seems to be pushing you to go visit the exhibition for yourself, the paper and its articles nonetheless manage to be interesting and opinionated.

Finally, of the major Pittsburgh newspapers, there is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which affords at least some criticism of art. The paper has even fewer articles that would qualify as art criticism than the other two paper mentioned, but when they do, like the articles in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, seem to be trying to get readers to go to the exhibit by constantly shedding the exhibitions in a particularly positive light. Rarely is a negative or almost negative phrase ever written. Although the articles, when they occur, are amusing and intelligent, they are noticeably lacking in frequency. Their articles also always center on exhibitions or events in the Greater Pittsburgh area, rarely venturing any further than to explore the Easternmost parts of Ohio.

There are two other print publications worth mentioning for their contributions, however measly, to the state of art criticism in Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University’s The Tartan and University of Pittsburgh’s The Pitt News, both student-run publications. Both school’s student newspapers publish relatively frequent reviews of local art exhibitions. Unfortunately, they both rarely write to a particularly high standard, however, they do attempt to review the Pittsburgh art scene with some degree of professionalism. A valiant effort that falls just short of actually qualifying as well written art criticism, at least the students seem to know that the arts are worth being covered and should be covered, to whatever degree their writers are capable of; at least they’re trying.

After print publications, arguably, the second important source of art criticism in Pittsburgh is online, specifically blogs. Two types of blogs that need to be taken into particular consideration when looking at Pittsburgh’s online art criticism: publications based in Pittsburgh and publications based outside of Pittsburgh. The latter is a very small category that is more or less limited, at least recently, to a single online blog based in Brooklyn, hyperallergic, that posted articles about the Miller Gallery’s Pittsbugh 2011 Biennial exhibit, the Warhol Museum’s pop art phone application and the Mattress Factory’s permanent Kusama piece[1].  These articles can definitely be regarded as criticism and are particularly important in that they are some of the only instances where Pittsburgh art is placed in the context of a larger art scene, one beyond the city’s limits. Important to note in this discussion is that Pittsburgh is rarely, if ever, mentioned in major art journals or magazines based in other cities and, if it is, the Pittsburgh art scene or Pittsburgh in any capacity rarely notices.

Of the online publications based in Pittsburgh, there really aren’t many that contribute to the actual art criticism scene. There are only two, arguably three, blogs that actively contribute to Pittsburgh’s criticism that aren’t affiliated with one of the city’s art museums. The first of these is The Pittsburgh Art Blog which covers more or less all the art related activities and exhibits within the city. Not all the articles are of a critical nature: many are simply reviews or provide information to get the reader to visit the exhibit. Some articles, however, are more in depth and offer real opinions and critiques of exhibits or works around the city. The second notable blog is diggingpitt, which, although the articles about Pittsburgh aren’t particularly plentiful, do exist and do exist consistently. The articles aren’t the best written, but; at least, they do exist, which is a plus for Pittsburgh’s art criticism scene. The third Pittsburgh-based blog, arguably, worth making note of is venangago-go, which shares many similarities with diggingpitt. The articles dedicated to art are very much sporadic; if we’re being honest, there really aren’t very many of them. There are a couple of gems hiding on the site, however, that offer really interesting critiques on Pittsburgh-based exhibitions or on art in general. Regrettably, however, the fact that there are so few such articles on the site makes its importance to the Pittsburgh art criticism scene relatively minimal.

The second camp of art criticism blogs is those affiliated with museums: the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Mattress Factory and the Warhol Museum. Carnegie Museum of Art has a series of articles posted by its director Lynn Zalevesky called “Inside the Museum” that address a number of issues facing the museum world as well as occasionally critiquing significant works or exhibits in the art world outside of Pittsburgh. While some of Zalevesky’s articles are promotional in nature, making no secret of trying to get readers to visit whatever shows the museum has up; many of her posts are thoughtful insights and observations about contemporary art and museums. Since it is, however, written by an individual who is not only explicitly affiliated with a particular institution, but, as such, biased towards it as well, taking her posts as legitimate beyond the context of the Carnegie Museum of Art and her obligations to the museum and to Pittsburgh as its director is difficult to do and certainly marginalizes, however slightly, her contributions to the state of art criticism in Pittsburgh.

In contrast, the Warhol Museum has a number of blogs that don’t offer thoughtful or careful criticisms of art or Pittsburgh art, but serve purely self-promoting purposes, touting the museum’s current endeavors in a glaringly obvious attempt to nudge people in the general direction of the museum’s admissions desk. Similarly, the Mattress Factory’s blog bombards the reader with pictures of past events and details about upcoming ones in a not-so-subtle attempt to entice visitors to the museum. As much as it would be nice to be able to do, neither of these blogs really qualifies nor can be classified as criticism.

To finish the exploration of the significant contributors to Pittsburgh’s art criticism scene, two more venues need to be taken into account: the WQED Horizons series and CBS Pittsburgh. WQED Horizons is classified as “multimedia TV” and is essentially a series of short videos posted online by WGED that occasionally address art world issues, but, happily, address them critically and in depth. The infrequency of these arts videos cannot be stressed enough, but the fact that they exist in any capacity is nonetheless a pretty amazing contribution to art discourse, despite the fact that not many may realize they exist as they’re hidden on a website renowned for playing Jazz and Classical music on the weekends. In addition to this unique resource is CBS Pittsburgh, which provides articles about art related topics and events going around the city. Although the nature of many of these articles is clearly an attempt to persuade the readers, an overwhelming trend that appears to be occurring in Pittsburgh, their articles often go beyond simply reiterating the details of an event to actually giving a history and providing a context about an exhibit, event or artist. The articles are incredibly accessible and easy to comprehend; they’re not at all snobby, but they’re definitely intelligent, if not accidentally, art criticism, despite, their relative infrequency.

Given this state of art criticism in Pittsburgh as a whole, a number of conclusions can be drawn about the nature of its character and, by extension, about the entire Pittsburgh art scene. First off, not only is Pittsburgh’s art criticism scattered, but genuinely good and well written criticism is excruciatingly hard to come by, either written in Pittsburgh or written about Pittsburgh. This lack of centrality makes it difficult to nearly impossible to form a solid foundation from which to develop or expand the city’s criticism in the future.

Of the articles that do exist about Pittsburgh art, a lot of writing is promotional in nature, trying to get people up and out to exhibits, rather than being critical of the quality of the work being produced. The writing aims to target people who wouldn’t necessarily go see an exhibition in the first place, people who aren’t interested in reading art criticism much more weighty than a simple and short review. The audience of these publications, the city newspapers specifically, is not exclusively art-y people. Their audience may not care about reading art criticism; they probably care more about whether the Steelers won a game. So that’s what the newspapers provide its readers instead of extensive and prolific art criticism because, after all, they are a business and want their audience to keep buying their product.

Furthermore, there’s simply not a lot of criticism produced in Pittsburgh; there aren’t many publications that take the time to write about art, let alone criticize it well. This may be indicative of the fact that, true to the city’s history, the art scene and its art criticism scene are more concerned with production of art in the first place. Perhaps Pittsburgh has not yet reached the place where it wants to or can be concerned with the overall quality of the art being produced. Yes, there is some great work being produced, but there is equally and more prolifically genuinely bad art being produced. Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that there is no desire for a standard for excellence (or a standard of any kind, really) yet in Pittsburgh, probably due to a lack of criticism; a definite catch twenty-two.

Arguably the most important conclusion that can be drawn about the state of Pittsburgh’s art criticism is that it’s pretty much confined to itself; Pittsburgh isn’t looking outside itself and no one else is looking towards Pittsburgh. Any criticism about art or exhibits being produced or taking place in Pittsburgh is written about and published in Pittsburgh, with few exceptions. Occasionally, you might see a piece of art criticism from another city about something occurring in Pittsburgh, but you will also find very few people taking notice, let alone responding. If you look at blog posts from hyperallergic, the only feedback was in response to a video that took place at the Mattress Factory of a small and very adorable child[2]. You rarely see pieces about art happenings in Pittsburgh in other cities’ publications because no one else really seems to care what’s going on in Pittsburgh.

Not only do other cities neglect Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh tends to neglect other cities in return. Only once in a blue moon do any Pittsburgh publications ever write about art outside of Pittsburgh. Furthermore, it’s rare to see pieces of criticism in Pittsburgh that are not directly based on a physical exhibition or event that’s taking place with the real exceptions, of Carnegie Museum of Art’s blog or The Pittsburgh Art Blog.

Based off these conclusions, the observation can be made that people, very generally, don’t expect criticism (let alone good criticism) to come from Pittsburgh. Taking it one step further, there’s virtually no one reading (or taking seriously) the criticism that is being written in Pittsburgh because it’s not particularly substantial. Rarely do you find criticism that goes to far as to make an argument or explicit assertion of any kind. Pittsburgh art criticism and, by extension, Pittsburgh’s entire art scene aren’t relevant to a large audience either within or outside the city itself. Criticism isn’t expected or desired and so it’s simply not being produced.

Despite the lack and lackluster status of Pittsburgh’s art criticism, important to note is that there is, nonetheless, a vibrant and developing arts scene. Despite the fact that the scene is more or less entirely independent, it is nonetheless blossoming and growing. The arts community, however, will reach a standstill if there remains little to no discourse or discussion.

There are a number of factors that contribute to making art criticism in Pittsburgh what it is today. The first is the state of Pittsburgh publications, art related or otherwise. None of Pittsburgh’s paper publications are particularly well respected outside of Pittsburgh. Simply put, no one takes the papers seriously; no one takes what’s written in them seriously, no one takes art criticism printed in Pittsburgh seriously. Not just a lack of reputability, but there is also a surprisingly small number of publications produced as compared to other cities with more successful art criticism occurring.

This leads to a second contributor: the interest, or lack thereof, in criticism from Pittsburgh. In terms of audience interest, these paper publications, which are more or less the only legitimate and consistent source of criticism in Pittsburgh, are not very interesting or appealing to very many people. Within Pittsburgh, no one has reason to believe that the existing publications will create or support intelligent criticism, so artists and art enthusiasts turn to publications outside of Pittsburgh to get their fix. The same can be said of artists and art enthusiasts who don’t reside in Pittsburgh: they have no reason to read Pittsburgh criticism, so they don’t. Furthermore, Pittsburgh’s art scene isn’t relevant to a more national audience so there’s even less reason to read about what’s going on in its art world if you’re not already a part. Within the community of those who should, in theory, be interested in what Pittsburgh has to say, they have, arguably, turned to other sources that maintain a level of credibility, legitimacy, frequency and consistency that Pittsburgh’s art criticism does not afford them.

In terms of getting art critics with more legitimacy in the world of art criticism than those currently in Pittsburgh, due to this lack of interest in Pittsburgh’s criticism, it becomes very difficult to attract reputable or competent writers. No one wants to write for a publication that isn’t well respected if they have the opportunity to work elsewhere.

Thus, Pittsburgh is faced with a dilemma: how can it increase the proliferation and quality of the criticism being produced? If the art community is to be sustained and developed in a long-term capacity, dialogue and discussion is absolutely crucial and most intelligent dialogue and discussion comes in the form of intelligent art criticism.

Before any recommendations can be made, the aims and the outcome that is being striven for must be considered. Art criticism is inherently intertwined with the art practice and art scene of a city, thus any changes to one will have implications for the others. This is not to say, however, that the change will be inherently good or bad. There are two approaches that can be taken in terms of changing the state of art criticism: an approach centered around the art world of Pittsburgh as independent and an approach centered around Pittsburgh’s part in the larger national and international art world. Before these two approaches can be taken, another course of action must first be pursued: to increase the amount and kind of criticism being produced in Pittsburgh, regardless of whether the implications are local, national or international.

If the goal is to increase the sheer presence of Pittsburgh’s art criticism, there are a number of simple steps that can be taken. First, and most obviously, there should simply be more writing about art happening in Pittsburgh. How can that happen? Well, there are a whole lot of art, art history and writing students in the city who would jump at the chance to intern with any one of the paper publications in the city. Not only would these internships would provide valuable experience and allow these individuals with the ability to contribute to the arts discourse by publishing visible, frequent and well-informed pieces of writing, but these internships would cost the organizations little to no money or time. The contributions could be as simple as an intern-run blog associated with the paper’s website; it doesn’t have to necessarily be in print. If a number of publications all instituted similar programs, art criticism in the Pittsburgh would automatically become more robust simply by becoming larger. In turn, this would lead to more reputable art criticism in Pittsburgh due to the frequency and quality of criticism being produced.

Another, slightly more complicated, potential solution for how to increase the amount of criticism being produced is also contingent on Pittsburgh’s student population. Universities inherently foster a dialogue and by simply find a means to make the discourse surrounding art public; Pittsburgh’s art scene can benefit and continue to flourish. Perhaps making private discussion forums open for the public to participate would act as a catalyst for further criticism in Pittsburgh.

A third potential solution for increasing the sheer number of pieces of art criticism being produced in Pittsburgh would be for an individual, university or arts organization, perhaps, to sponsor a competition for art criticism. Doing so would not only create art criticism, but also elevate its status as something important. Hopefully, by affording that particular type of writing a certain amount of prestige, more individuals would want to create a public art discourse in Pittsburgh.

Another possible solution is very simple: create a public, online forum where many different individuals have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of art in Pittsburgh. Since art criticism is currently very de-centralized, there’s very little public discourse and discussion because no one knows the best place to start discussing. Starting such a forum through a Museum or University facebook page, then moving the discussion to a separate online location may be most effective. Not only will there be increased discussion, this also opens the avenue for collaboration on other arts and art criticism related projects that would go otherwise unrealized because there’s no truly effective or remotely easy means of finding like-minded or interested individuals that would actually respond.

The only real distinction between expanding Pittsburgh criticism versus expanding criticism coming from Pittsburgh into the national and international art scopes is the actual content of the pieces, which is ultimately dictated by editors and writers, which is difficult control unless you are those editors or writers. If the goal is to expand and enlighten the Pittsburgh art scene and the exhibitions going on and artists working in Pittsburgh, publications should continue to focus on events and exhibits. Additionally, writers might want to focus on individual artists, perhaps going to their studios and writing from there.

If, however, the goal is to expand into and gain legitimacy in the larger national and international art scenes, the focus of criticism needs to expand beyond simply Pittsburgh artists, events and exhibitions to encompass other cities, other cities’ artists and discuss overarching topics and trends within the art world. In order for others to acknowledge Pittsburgh art and criticism, Pittsburgh needs to acknowledge the art, criticism and dialogue of other cities. Once that dialogue is created, hopefully, other cities and other art scenes will reciprocate and trend towards acknowledging and legitimizing Pittsburgh’s art and criticism on a broader level.

What the state of Pittsburgh’s art criticism comes down to is this: despite the fact that the art community has managed to sustain itself and develop, if Pittsburgh’s art criticism does not work to get its act together, its arts community will become stagnant and, ultimately, obsolete. An arts community cannot continue without discourse, as Pittsburgh will inevitably discover. The current state of art criticism can be attributed to a number of causes and the future state of art criticism can be salvaged to a variety of solutions. At this point, a single individual has the power to completely revitalize Pittsburgh and its art criticism, a unique and important opportunity that would be in the best interest of the entire Pittsburgh arts community not to ignore.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“The Tartan Online.” The Tartan Online. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://thetartan.org/&gt;.

“CBS Pittsburgh.” CBS Pittsburgh. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/>.

“Hyperallergic — Sensitive to Art and its Discontents.” Hyperallergic — Sensitive to Art and its Discontents. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://hyperallergic.com/&gt;.

“IheartPGH – I heart PGH – A Blog about Pittsburgh Things.” IheartPGH – I heart PGH – A Blog about Pittsburgh Things. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://iheartpgh.com/&gt;.

“Inside the Museum.” Carnegie Museum of Art. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://web.cmoa.org/director&gt;.

“Mattress Factory | Weblog.” Mattress Factory | Weblog. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://artyoucangetinto.blogspot.com/&gt;.

Montanez, Virginia. “Pittsburgh Magazine: Restaurants, Best of, Entertainment, Doctors, Sports, Weddings.” Pittsburgh Magazine: Restaurants, Best of, Entertainment, Doctors, Sports, Weddings. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.pittsburghmagazine.com/&gt;.

“New Pittsburgh Courier.” New Pittsburgh Courier. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.newpittsburghcourieronline.com/&gt;.

“Northside Chronicle.” Northside Chronicle. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.thenorthsidechronicle.com/&gt;.

“Pittsburgh City Paper – News, Music, Restaurants, Events, Arts and Entertainment Newspaper.” Pittsburgh City Paper – News, Music, Restaurants, Events, Arts and Entertainment Newspaper. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/index&gt;.

“Pittsburgh Tribune Review.”Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.pittsburghlive.com/&gt;.

“Pittsburgh news for tech, arts, hiring –Pop City.” Pittsburgh news for tech, arts, hiring –Pop City. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://popcitymedia.com/&gt;.

“Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, Cleveland Arts And Livable City Blog.”Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, Cleveland Arts And Livable City Blog. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://diggingpitt.blogspot.com/&gt;.

“Post-Gazette.com.” Post-Gazette.com. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.post-gazette.com/&gt;.

“The New Yinzer: Fall 2011.” The New Yinzer: Fall 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.newyinzer.com/&gt;.

“The Pitt News | Daily Student Newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh.” The Pitt News | Daily Student Newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://pittnews.com/&gt;.

“The Pittsburgh Art Blog.” The Pittsburgh Art Blog. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://pittsburghgalleries.blogspot.com/&gt;.

“WQED Multimedia: TV :: Horizons.”WQED changes lives.  Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.wqed.org/tv/horizons/index.php&gt;.

“venangago-go.” venangago-go. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://venangago-go.blogspot.com/&gt;.

“warhol: blogs.” the warhol. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://www.warhol.org/connect/blogs/&gt;.


[1] “Search: pittsburgh.” Hyperallergic — Sensitive to Art and its Discontents. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://hyperallergic.com/?s=pittsburgh&gt;.

[2] Chaka, Kyle. “Small Child Confused, Delighted by Kusama Dot Room.”Hyperallergic — Sensitive to Art and its Discontents. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://hyperallergic.com/23285/small-child-kusama/&gt;.

Karen Tarkulich: Cathy Wilkes: Acceptable Confusion (Word Count: 299)

A melancholy collection of objects form the basis of Cathy Wilkes at the Carnegie Museum of Art, but what is the basis, exactly? It doesn’t seem to be particularly apparent.

All you know is that you feel a profound sense of history and a decided sense of depression, even if you don’t know exactly why. Wilkes’ work is known for exploring themes including memory and loss through installation-based pieces[1]. Wilkes herself is known for not really providing in-depth explanations of her work, despite their often being helpful for parent trying to explain her hazy, abstract works to their children or for your average college senior.

Tragically beautiful objects sit on awkwardly low tables and range from personal objects like a book clearly written by a child about milk and other lactose-based foods to found objects dug up from the site of the WWI Battle of Somme to paintings to sculptures of babies sticking their tongues out.

Most striking, however, are the three figures. Viewers will inevitably do a double-take before realizing that the unsettling, listless figures staring towards them are painfully lifeless and not, in fact, other museum-goers.  For the first time, Wilkes depicts male figures, one with sunken, soul-sucking eyes, the other next to what appears to be an over-sized butterfly net, both entirely limp. The third is a voluptuous female figure, bending over what appears to be an unnecessary mess of string and cloth.

Almost miraculously and definitely without the consent of the viewer, these objects, appearing to be worn down by both life and dirt, manage to not only access, but also induce an intense sense of nostalgia and memory. Wilkes’ ability to evoke such weighty emotions universally makes understanding the basis of Wilkes’ work, and from where these intense emotions are deriving, entirely irrelevant.


[1] http://arttattler.com/archivecathywilkes.html

Karen Tarkulich: Factory Installed: The Usual Alienation (Word Count: 500)

The Mattress Factory has perfected the art of simultaneously enticing and alienating its visitors. This unsettling feeling that emerges in the pit of your stomach was particularly evident in their exhibit Factory Installed that features the work of six international artists who worked in residence at the museum to create site-specific installations.

I couldn’t help but feel that I’d been to this exhibit before as I finished walking through the pieces. Htay Maung’ My Offering and being surrounded by what felt like hundreds of white plaster hands holding out bread. The creepy world of cement casts, shelves of pipes and hair and then grates and muted quilts that let in minimal amounts of light of Veronica Ryan’s The Weather Inside. Something felt very familiar. This exhibit didn’t feel special. It didn’t feel new or innovative. It almost felt like it had been done before. Many times before.

Now, this could be because I had, in fact, seen the exhibit three times, but since I felt this way the very first time I saw the exhibit, that still doesn’t quite explain it. This could be a testament to the way in which the museum’s physical building imposes, subconsciously, a particular aesthetic on the artists creating work within the space. This could be a testament to the nature of installation art more broadly. That engaged alienating feeling is something I experience every single time I see (or rather, participate in) an installation work, regardless of aesthetics or the message being conveyed.

If, then, you go to an exhibit that is strictly installation work, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll walk away with a similar feeling in the pit of your stomach at every subsequent exhibit you see that’s also strictly installation work. All installation work is something the viewer actively participates in; installation becomes, in essence, architecture and architecture is constantly and continually experienced. Like any work of art, however, the viewer can never wholly know what the piece is about: it’s impossible to ever get into the artists head. This active participation highlights that inability to fully comprehend a piece, creating a sense of alienation the viewer is attuned to in every single installation work.

That is not to say that individual work within an installation exhibit can’t be independently stunning and innovative. Pablo Valbuena’s Para-site [mattress factory], a seemingly simple light projection onto the wall of a dark space, makes the viewer question whether they are seeing just a projection or shapes physically morphing. Time stands still as you see the back windows shifting shapes before you look at the edges and realize it’s just a light projection.

Because that alienating engagement is always present in an installation work, that feeling will overwhelming connect installation works in an exhibit like Factory Installed over all else. Exhibits of strictly installation work, then, can never really be new, posing an interesting and, arguably, impossible problem for a museum that focuses on just that: installation. Can installation exhibits ever be new or innovative?

 

 

Karen Tarkulich: Photographs and Character Flaws: Carnegie Museum of Art’s Teenie Harris Exhibition (Word Count: 600)

As I sat, ranting in my sketchbook in the middle of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s exhibition Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story, I became very aware that the old man at the computer next to mine was having a grand old time. Making little exclamations to himself as he explored. He thought the exhibit was just the ultimate. He wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm; I seemed to be the only one in the entire room of people who was seriously irked by… something about the exhibit. What was I missing that everyone else was able to appreciate? Why couldn’t I share in everyone else’s enthusiasm?

My feelings about the exhibit can be encapsulated fairly succinctly in a single sentence I passionately wrote, in all capital letters:

I REALLY WANT TO LIKE THIS EXHIBIT BUT I JUST CAN’T.

Harris was a truly spectacular photographer who took images of Pittsburgh’s African American community during the Jim Crow and Civil rights eras[i]. The exhibition itself displayed nearly a thousand of Harris’ black and white images and was composed of three main sections, with jazz music playing in the background. The first, housed seven simultaneous and massive projections of Harris’ images labeled from “Style” to “Crossroads” to “Rise and Fall of the Crawford Grill” onto the walls of the space. The second room was bright and spacious with a couple hundred images, in chronological order, circling the walls. In center of the room was a row of computer with web-based interactives of the archive. Scattered around the edges were stands of audio guides and little coffee table and couch set ups where the viewer could sit and learn more about Harris and his work. The last room featured a video about Harris with rows of chairs in front, like in a schoolroom, a map of Pittsburgh, and images from the archive selected by artists and historians with descriptions of why they felt that particular image was important.

I couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t appreciate the exhibition and I was incredibly frustrated. At first, I thought it had to do with the fact that I got the feeling as if I were at a children’s museum. Then I thought it had to do with the fact that, actually, I got the feeling that I were at a history museum. Then I thought it had to do with the, presumably poor, display of the exhibition and works. Then I thought it had to do with the fact that the presentation was too educational and lacked creativity, which prevented visitors from creating their own meaning and experience.

Then I realized the exhibit’s presentation left a lot up for interpretation, actually. I realized I was being a little ridiculous. I realized I just didn’t like the interactivity. What was so frustrating about the exhibit had absolutely nothing to do with the exhibit itself: I hated interactivity in an art context, but was acutely aware that there was absolutely nothing wrong with interactivity in an art context.

Interactivity meant that an art context wasn’t just for people that had studied art in an academic capacity. Art was for everyone. What I really disliked was that the exhibit had successfully made art accessible to a wider audience than to what I was accustomed and that made me really uncomfortable. I was a cranky old art elitist at the age of twenty-one.

The exhibition and Harris’ work are truly gorgeous and powerful, so long as interactivity doesn’t make you cringe, revealing much about the African American community in Pittsburgh, with the added bonus of revealing your character flaws.


1 “Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story.” Carnegie Museum of Art. Web. 14 Nov. 2011. <http://web.cmoa.org/?page_id=327&gt;.

 

Karen Tarkulich: Unblurred: Wonderfully Awful (Word Count: 747)

Once, I took someone used to going to New York galleries to Unblurred, the Penn Avenue Arts District’s art crawl. We started off by going into fun places with random, odd objects like stools and plastic cats. After exploring our second gallery, she voiced her frustration and confusion as to why these people had even been given gallery space in the first place. She decided that she, too, could find gallery space to exhibit her work. She reasoned it must be really easy. She briefly contemplated coming to Pittsburgh. She was being facetious, but I didn’t entirely disagree with her.

Unblurred is an entirely different and unexpected art experience for newcomers. A lot of the galleries aren’t that awesome. A lot of the work isn’t very impressive. But so what? Why shouldn’t mediocre art be displayed? What’s so wrong with that?

I don’t necessarily know that it’s the art itself, so much as how the art is displayed and presented. Creating a more art-y environment is simply a matter of learning to properly display art better. Viewers don’t take the art as seriously as they might, say, in galleries downtown because it’s painfully apparent when you walk into most venues that how the works were displayed came decidedly second to the fact that the works were even displayed in the first place.

Modern Formations’ Butterfly Kingdom had some pretty fascinating art by Christian Breitkreutz and Steph Neary, despite the fact that their work was almost cartoon or illustration-like and decidedly not what you think when you traditionally think of art” The artists’ work was displayed, seemingly, with little to no rhyme or reason; a string of Neary’s work would have a piece by Breitkreutz thrown in the line for no apparent reason. The seeming carelessness by which the works were arranges was decidedly distracting, drawing attention to a lack of cohesion of any kind away from the works themselves. Butterfly Kingdom wasn’t so much an exhibit as it was simply artists displaying their work.

To add to the art frustration, a lot of these galleries have absolutely beautiful, amazing old spaces with so much character, that could, if a little thought were put in, perfectly compliment the art and overall feeling of creativity and playfulness present throughout the art crawl. The only space that properly took advantage of the space was The International Children’s Art Gallery, which beautifully displayed large-scale painting of women by Richard Rappaport on large, colored and almost patterned walls, with plenty of space to sit back on repurposed church pews and just admire. The wood burning stove and plastic rocking horse in the window, managed to add to a sense of contemplative wonder and whimsy that was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately or fortunately, however, his work came second to the physical environment surrounding his pieces and so this gallery wasn’t exactly traditional either.

Irma Freeman Center for Imagination’s exhibit Pittsburgh by Pittsburgh Artists, in contrast, displayed its more “traditionally artistic” works in a more “traditional” manner. The front and back spaces of the gallery were filled with works packed in tightly, circling the entirety of both rooms, ranging from painting to sculpture to video to installation. There was a lot of work, but it was cohesive and didn’t seem over-crowded. There were some legitimately good works of art, like Seth Clark’s “Abandoned XVI,” a collage of an abandoned house with dark, smoky drawing over top that felt, despite or perhaps because of being unframed, decidedly ethereal. In displaying works more conventionally, however, the exhibition lost that creative, fun feeling present throughout other galleries and spaces at Unblurred.

What I have a tendency to forget, and what many people forget right along with me, is that Unblurred is an art crawl, not a gallery crawl. Yes, there are So what if I didn’t come out having seen a life-altering body of work or a mind-blowing commentary on a topic: I had way more fun than at a conventional gallery crawl. Unblurred successfully fosters a sense of creativity and fun, the sense that these artists and art community are just getting started (because they are) and will grow and develop with age. Maybe the art scene will become more conventional. Hopefully not. Unblurred makes art accessible, creative and exciting; something you don’t usually feel after going to a more traditional gallery. If I want to see painfully intellectual art, I’ll go to a museum. If I want to be inspired and excited, I’ll go to Unblurred.

 

 

Karen Tarkulich: Gallery Crawl in the Cultural District (Word Count: 788)

Whenever I got to the Gallery Crawl in the Cultural District, presented monthly by The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, I always feel like I’m doing it wrong, that I’m constantly missing important places and people. Hundreds of people milling about all the galleries, drinking wine and beer and making it impossible both to avoid conversation and to get enough breathing room create more so a social event than the ideal setting to view artwork. The Gallery Crawl offers more of a glimpse into what’s going on in the Cultural District, what’s really worth coming back for and what you don’t need to see again.

Usually, I’ll find myself gravitating and remembering a single work or a small number of works that were truly horrendous or truly wonderful; this time around, I found not only an entirely fascinating individual piece that I endured a gallery that felt more like a sauna for upwards of half an hour just to see, but also an entire gallery that was phenomenally curated.

Guest curator at SPACE, Jill Larson, assembled the ultimate exhibition for the Gallery Crawl. “Extraction” invited artists to create works from that viewers could physically take pieces away, creating both an exhibit and individual pieces in a constant state of change. With hundreds of people throughout the night, the dynamics surrounding how viewers interacted reflected not only the changing works and gallery, but also provided apt insight into the social dynamics of gallery goers. Initially, few dared to touch or take pieces of art, but as the night progressed, more people came and the viewers enjoyed free alcohol, the pieces of art slowly started to disappear. Returning to the gallery a short while later, the exhibit had gone from mostly intact in the gallery space to largely living in people’s pockets and purses.

Some pieces were linked chains held together with plastic ties meant to be cut apart, some pieces involved exchanging words with the artist, some pieces were small replicas of trees from the boroughs of Pittsburgh, some pieces required hacking into large hunks of ice. One piece in particular, Forget-Me-Nots by Alexandra Watrous, managed to transcend not just the physical gallery space into the spaces of pockets and purses, but also infinitely into the future. Watrous created a wall of packets of forget-me-nots seeds printed with memories her father had forgotten. Her work encourages viewers to take a packet and a memory to recreate and repossess the consciousness her father has lost. The seeds are meant to be planted and serve as a constant reminder of the memory in years to come. I would imagine, however, the flowers would foremost serve more as a reminder of the Gallery Crawl, a particularly accidentally effective marketing tool.

 Wood Street Galleries, which has a history of technology-based art, provided an interesting commentary on dueling technologies that appear to run parallel or overlap in their exhibit “Parallel Universe” notably Lawrence Malstaf’s Shrink. Malstaf’s piece is part video, part installation, and part performance. In the center of the gallery, what appear to be two giant, rectangular layers of clear plastic between two metal poles hang from the ceiling. Feeding into the top are two vacuum tubes and the viewer is inclined to conjure up memories of late-night infomercials featuring smiling housewives touting vacuum-sealed storage bags that store your winter sweaters or extra meat more efficiently than regular plastic bags. At first perplexing, the mystery of this installation begins to be explained by the video projected on the wall of the artist’s previous performances of being sealed into this human-sized plastic frame hanging from the ceiling.

 Now the plastic becomes a place to be inhabited in your mind and you can’t help but wonder what it’s like inside the plastic; signs encouraging visitors to ask a gallery attendant about how they, too, can experience this plastic packaging only encourage speculation. It is not until after Malstaf himself comes into the room and ascends into the plastic womb and the vacuum begins to suck in air, pulling the plastic encasing tighter and tighter across his body that you realize you’ve been standing, dumb-struck and overheating in your woefully heavy jacket for at least twenty minutes. As Malstaf squirms and changes positions, you can’t help but think that the only differences between the artist and an unborn baby are their literal sizes and the fact that one is fully exposed to the world, the other fully hidden.

It’s just shy of 9 o’clock now and any other galleries left unseen will probably remain so. Conversations floated about galleries I should have gone to see, but weren’t able to get to and, unfortunately, the chances of my coming back before the next Gallery Crawl are slim to none.

 

Karen Tarkulich: The Andy Warhol Museum: Gertrude’s/LOT (Word Count: 600)

Gertrude’s/LOT , presented by the Andy Warhol Museum as part of the Pittsburgh Biennial featured works by artists meant to transgress boundaries and “challenge and provoke the status quo.”[1] Like the Miller Gallery’s exhibition as part of the Pittsburgh Biennial that displayed works by collectives or collaborations, the Warhol’s exhibition presented works by artists sharing a particular characteristic, namely, that they were all born with the same parts downstairs: all the artists featured were female.

The exhibition is a dichotomy between female artists that address identity, often gender identity, and female artists that just… don’t touch the issue. The first camp, those who don’t directly and apparently address issues of identity explicitly, includes works such as Deborah Kass’s screen-printed, repeated image of Gertrude Stein’s family and LaToya Ruby Frazier’s series of images about Braddock Hospitals.

The second camp, those who directly and apparently address issues of identity, like T. Foley’s Easy Pieces of a playful and hilarious video of the artist sitting as a dummy named Hector who functions as the artist’s straight man, talks about life and getting women. The piece is a very apparent commentary on not only gender, but also the very nature and legitimacy of personality itself. Renee Stout’s The Rootwoman’s Worktable tackles identity explicitly, featuring the worktable of Fatima Mayfield, the conjure woman who doubles as Stout’s alter ego. Antiqued looking bottles of perfumes and unidentifiable pickled things sit atop a musty table and rug in front of a small blackboard. Fatima has evidently used the board to figure out what she needs to seduce the mysterious “Sterling Rochambeau” which, incidentally, is also the name of a style of silverware. Vanessa German’s hilarious and unsettling Minstrel Blood: The Greatest Show on Earth Everything You Need For Your Menstrual Show! displays tar babies against dirty whites, reds and whites. The main baby spins in front of a mirror in a skirt of random, eerie objects, many of which are small white, porcelain figurines. Bluesy, circus-like music contributes to an overall melancholy, dejected feeling as the viewer watches the tar baby dance in circles.

This dichotomy makes the viewer pretty uncomfortable as there’s seemingly only cohesion in terms of one half of the exhibition, the female artists that don’t directly address issues of identity seem to fit in only because of their gender and subsequently, the viewer becomes decidedly perplexed as to why these seemingly random female artists are included in the first place.

Ironically, calling attention to their gender in this exhibition serves as both an expose or critique and to further perpetuate that very inequality. The meaning of the works features still changes after the viewer identifies the exhibition as all female. Even if the intent is to draw positive attention to gender issues, the moment the work is displayed together as women, their status as artists is belittled.

Yes, works that address these kinds of topics offer necessary exposure and dialogue surrounding gender and identity, but have we reached the point of no return? Have works regarding gender passed the point where they foster dialogue and into the realm of beating a dead horse? Not only beating a dead horse, but also creating that horse in the first place?

I don’t care what you or the art world would like to think, contemporary art has yet to escape the issue of gender and gender inequality, in fact, it’s nowhere close. We’re getting there, as one half of the exhibition can attest to, but you’re fooling yourself if you think that female artists don’t continue to be subjugated solely as a result of their anatomy.


[1] Armstrong, Rick. “THE WORD OF GOD: MAX GIMBLETT THE SOUND OF ONE HAND & Pittsburgh Biennial – Gertrude’s/LOT.” August 31, 2011. The Andy Warhol Museum. Print.