The chill rains of early fall did little to dissuade the Pittsburgh public from gathering in the Downtown neighborhood to enjoy the offerings of the quarterly Cultural District Gallery Crawl. Across several city blocks there lay gallery openings, film screenings, live music, and, in a relatively recent addition, a small marketplace of vendors hocking their wares. Thousands of visitors doggedly jumped from location to location seeking good company, free drinks, and more art than could be experienced in a mere three-and-a-half hour evening. Here was the interested public.
The spectacle of the event somewhat unfortunately created certain limitations on both what art was shown and how it was displayed. The urges to see every one of the thirty or so unrelated exhibitions and to engage in lively socialization ensured that no artwork could be considered at the viewer’s own pace. Perhaps for this reason, informational placards were in low supply. For example, CURRENCY had a series of technically impressive paintings and intriguing sculpture – for example, a bloody fasces stuck into a wall – anonymous without the few packets detailing the names, makers, and prices of each piece. The atmosphere’s energy was lively and exciting rather than rushed, making the event well suited to those with little experience in cultural exploration.
Judging by their vast crowds of visitors, the two centerpiece venues of the night were the SPACE gallery, with Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses, and Wood Street Galleries, with The City & the City: Artwork by London Writer. Oddly, neither of the exhibitions were well suited to the night’s atmosphere. Circles‘ was obfuscated to the extreme – the smell of burnt plastic and the sight of a performer clad in headphones and goggles fiddling with an iPhone could not foster an essential good first impression with viewers. The exhibition lacked documentation, critical here in such an outlandish environment unlike CURRENCY‘s more conventional presentation. The City demanded commitment on a night when adopting such an attitude meant less time to explore Downtown’s hidden artistic nooks, founding itself on the act of careful examination. Greenwich Degree Zero, for example, filled an entire room with historical documents and evidence detailing the detonation of a bomb by French anarchist Martial Bourdin near London’s Royal Observatory. Each item was carefully altered so that, in a new representation of history, the Observatory was destroyed. The reinterpretation of the event expected meditation on the part of the observer, meditation unfeasible in the rush of bodies through the space.
The Gallery Crawl had been so successful at establishing itself as a social experience that it showed when exhibitions were not tailored to it. As a method of introduction to and sampling of the Pittsburgh cultural community, however, it may have been unrivaled. Unassuming, the event demands nothing of the diverse crowds it draws, but instead offers a suggestion for those willing to listen – come back and see things on your own time, a little more patient and a little more sober.
Going through the Gallery Crawl in the Cultural District is fundamentally an entirely different process than going through a normal gallery. This collection of 38 arts venues brought together artists of all shapes and forms into a patchwork quilt of culture. The streets are filled with art aficionados and Pittsburghers alike, as no area of the city has been roped off, maintaining it as an entirely urban environment, and the price can’t be beat, with free admission to all displays. The atmosphere is more similar to that of a carnival than the heart of a city though, as most people walked leisurely and in groups of friends rather than being in a hurry. The Glenn Strother Project performed live music in Katz Plaza, while buskers sat on the sidewalk playing drums and didgeridoos for money. Overall, the ambience was a pleasing and invigorating demonstration of what Pittsburgh can mean to Pittsburghers.
Down the way, a larger alley lined both sides with art and food vendors, a DJ, and a makeshift dance floor, where children were enjoying the music. Two larger Mardi Gras-esque costumed individuals were also roaming the area around the DJ. The crowd amassed the most in this area.
While as a whole I found myself enjoying the experience, I couldn’t help but noticed a few of the weaker galleries. SPACE featured Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses, which appeared to be a random collection of art types who shoddily threw together their individual pieces and lacked cohesion as a whole. Walking around the space, it was difficult to tell if I was watching performance art or materials that were meant to be interacted with. One child was balling up aluminum foil that sat on the ground (which I presumed to be art) and throwing it, while another child was placing reflective surfaces on an overhead projector. One of the pieces was a camera that was filming a laptop screen with nature footage on it and projected said footage from the camera on the opposing wall. Within such a weird assortment of pieces was one aesthetically pleasing piece: a boat caked with a thick coat of green paint, sitting on a rug in the middle of the room. The way the paint was applied made for a unique weathered look of decay.
One of the galleries that I did find myself thoroughly enjoying was in the 709 Penn Gallery. Derby: Rob Larson it featured the Blitzburgh Bombers Roller Derby team. This photographic series featured individual portraits of players after games, players who must have been instructed not to clean up any injuries. These prints show off the natural beauty of these women who are not made up for some photo shoot, but rather playing a sport, a violent one at that. These women are bruised, battered, and bleeding, but they don’t appear to mind. Not one of these women is wincing or in pain, they are composed and appear to be taking glamour shots.
Spanning several blocks of the cultural district, Pittsburgh’s gallery crawl features two-dozen plus exhibits, running the gamut from one person shows to elaborate installations, from performances to street art. The entire experience can be quite daunting, especially considering that the crawl only lasts from 5:30 to 9:00, a scant three and a half hours to take in what could easily be a week’s worth of exhibits. Nevertheless, the short time frame adds a sense of urgency to each, and heightens one’s engagement with the experience. With so many locations to hit, there is little time to waste dilly-dallying, and yet one never feels overwhelmed. The promise of another show – perhaps more enticing than one’s current engagement – keeps the evening from approaching any sort of boredom. In the end, the event is quite exhilarating.
With so many exhibits, it can be difficult to begin. Liberty Avenue seems like a logical first choice, as most of the shows are clustered around this thoroughfare. If one does choose to start here, the SPACE exhibition – with its large, inviting glass storefront – may very well become one’s first stop. Upon entering the show itself, one is immediately confronted with an extraordinarily low-frequency “thrumming,” which the exhibit describes as music by DJ Edgar Um, but which seems more akin to whale songs. The long, drawn out chords reverberate through the body, imbue one with a sense of unease. Complementing this sense of disquiet is a large shipwreck, placed right inside the entrance. The overall impression becomes one of dislocation, with the shipwreck serving as the idea of being lost at sea and the music functioning as white noise. Together, the two meld into a quite successful sense of confusion, further supplemented by the rest of the exhibit, which features a series of audio-visual displays arranged in a way that suggests different layers of reality. The exhibit challenges the viewer to derive some meaning from these dizzying planes of reality – an audacious and successful example of “installation art.”
The crawl also includes several less successful and more conservative shows. The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s exhibit, Art on the Walls, with work by Gwyn Rohrer, is one such example. Located on Penn Avenue, on the second floor of a building that smells suspiciously like a doctor’s office, the gallery features work celebrating the working class roots of Pittsburgh, all arranged in neat and tidy rows. And while the pieces themselves stand on their own well enough, it is difficult to reconcile the purported purpose of the show with the fact that, in my half hour at the exhibit, I failed to see any indication that a member of the actual working class visited the show. To the Council’s credit, the Public Arts Expedition, a tour of the district’s public art, does show a willingness and desire to connect with those outside the art world.
The three and a half hours allotted for the gallery crawl is not nearly enough time to see everything Pittsburgh’s cultural district has to offer. It is enough, however, to whet one’s appetite for future visits.
“Gallery Crawl in the Cultural District.” Pittsburgh Throughout the Cultural District September 28, 2012. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2012. http://trustarts.culturaldistrict.org/event/2522/gallery-crawl-in-the-cultural-district.
Last Friday night, the noisy crowds milling the streets of downtown Pittsburgh were not on their way to a Pirates game, but to an art gallery. The Cultural Trust orchestrates these quarterly crawls, which are completely free to the public. They tend to draw in a very different crowd than that which normally frequents the downtown galleries.
The majority of visitors appeared to be spending only a half hour or so in each gallery before walking to the next, and the focus of many was on socializing and enjoying the night rather than engaging with the art itself. This may be due to the fact that each gallery had its own agenda, which made ‘art-hopping’ slightly disconcerting. These agendas varied from the very transparent to the more nebulous, as in “A Matter of Convenience” at Future Tenant when compared to “Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses” at Space. “A Matter of Convenience” was curated by artists Rose Clancy and Maria Mangano, who also contributed to the show along with local artists Suzy Meyer and Anna E. Mikolay. The exhibit was a gesture of activism just as much as art, if not more so. The work was information oriented and very didactic, leaving little room for visitors to stray from the obvious message of the benefits of local food sources and maintaining a balanced ecosystem. The simplicity of its message left the viewer feeling unsatisfied by several pieces, such as the photography series A Crate A Week, which depicted the grocery boxes delivered weekly by the Community Supported Agriculture group. Though informative, “Convenience” felt like more of a PSA than an art exhibit.
Space gallery, on the other hand, was visually intriguing to visitors even before entering. The artist collective 181, comprised of Abby Donovan, Brandon Boan, Tom Hughes, and Jason Rhodes created a blend of installation and performance designed to display “dynamic perceptual architectures.” Through a window, passerby could see a giant, crusted sailboat, a man masked in a helmet frozen on a Vespa (moving every so often to startle onlookers) and a moon-like ball onto which projections of itself were swirling. At a surface level the lack of obvious cohesiveness between the pieces was daunting. Nevertheless, upon entry to the gallery, the world created through digital projections and performance was both visually and conceptually engaging.
In addition to established galleries such as Space and Wood Street, crafters and local businesses participated, including a new barbershop tucked away on the corner of Penn Avenue. Brandon, owner of the Culturals Elite Salon, featured drawings from “The Art of 954”, casually displayed on tables in front of the shop’s salon chairs. “This is our first year doing this,” he explained, “we thought it’d be a good chance to get ourselves out there, let people know we’re here.” The Crawl itself seemed to share Brandon’s focus, as the main experience of the night was more about making connections and engaging with other crafters and artists than it was about the work itself.
Excited Pittsburghers poured into the Cultural District on Friday for the Gallery Crawl, a time to visit galleries, listen to music, and mingle that comes along four times a year. Among the venues I visited, I saw art presented in a diversity of contexts. I had more conventional gallery experiences at Elin Hansdóttir’s Path, hosted by Wood Street Galleries, and Erika Osbourne’s Imprinting Place at 707 Penn Gallery. But I also saw work in unexpected venues, like at The Cultural’s Elite Salon, where paintings hung above customers getting their hair done, or the Catholic Charities Welcome Center, where teen artists talked about their photographs of Yellowstone Park. It was refreshing to find that the Gallery Crawl didn’t cater to any one audience, but welcomed the community and offered an inclusive opportunity to present and celebrate each other’s art.
When I entered The Cultural’s Elite Salon’s exhibition, Art of 954, I thought I was in the wrong place. I saw people getting their hair trimmed and some teens lounging on couches. However, on second glance, I noticed a cheese plate and the paintings of Iesha Grady on the walls. Grady, a local high schooler, recently won a congressional prize for a drawing, which will be displayed in the Capitol this year. One colorful and chaotic painting caught my attention in which tribal faces, hairdressing tools, and bands of strong color are superimposed. At the center, an electric razor with ribbed notches floats next to a grey organic form, which suggests a muscled alien torso with no arms. Its sculpted abdominals are adorned with an on-off power symbol. The painting produces a tremendous sense of depth, creating an incubator-like space in which powerful faces and objects float in an interconnected state. This was the most truthful and striking painting I saw that night.
I waited on line for 30 minutes to enter Elin Hansdóttir’s Path, which was installed in an ex-adult-bookstore at 943 Liberty Avenue. In the gutted, white waiting room a receptionist sat in front of the door to the piece, recording how long each person took inside. When I finally went through the ominous door, I groped my way through the pitch-black corridor moving cautiously forward through the zigzagging maze. At certain corners, a thin sliver of light would come through a wall-length vertical slit. This light guided me but also produced weird shadows that confused my spatial sense, making walls look like passages and vice versa. A low, heavenly drone filled the space and modulated in volume as I progressed, taking sharp turns around corners and losing my sense of direction. Walking towards the end I encountered a wedge-like corridor whose walls tightened around me. This was the drone’s source, which grew overwhelmingly loud as I approached the wedge’s pinnacle. It was an experience that evoked sensations of aloneness and primal fear. Path is a rare and wonderful type of artwork that is activated by each person who experiences it, and wholly defined by these interactions.
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.
One of the more lively evenings of Pittsburgh, affirmed by the crowded on-street parking and garages, is the quarterly gallery crawl – an unmissable event for those into the arts. All the venues within the few blocks are intimate; walking the span of the cultural district is no daunting affair. Yet, there seems to be enough variety in the exhibitions, music and dance events, for a diverse audience to have an enjoyable night. Pinpointing what to go and see on a postcard size map, one often ends up – at some point – in two of the galleries that are usually most exciting: Wood Street Galleries and SPACE.
The City & the City exhibition atWood Street explores London as it exists in people’s minds, as well as in reality – through its history, urban landscape, and psychogeography. The first piece you encounter, Flying Down to Rio [2011, Petit, Matthews, and Sinclair] will stay with you for the entire evening. You are surrounded by four sizable projections of London streets during the day; and the longer you stay (especially when you sit) you realise you’re looking through the windows of a travelling car. The slightly eerie music, and instances when the four projections are identical, keep you away from the place’s reality.
Further down the street, instead of seeing manikins in the large storefront-like windows of SPACE, anyone outside sees a darkened room interrupted by moving projections, flashing colours, and a consistent blaring sound that is hard to call music. The title of Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses fittingly describes such an assault on the senses. Lights, reflections, and distortions create this exhibit, as well as a crusty sailboat placed on Persian rugs that makes us feel like we’re miles under sea level, and a huge weightless ball swinging back and forth like a pendulum coolly coaxes visitors into the gallery through the window. Handheld twisting footage of this ball is projected on its own smooth white surface so we can see the sphere within the sphere within the sphere; you can’t make heads or tails of it and trying to recognise what you’re seeing projected is futile.
The crawl would have lacked much of its exuberant energy without Project Pop Up: Night Market. In front of the glittering backdrop of the familiar cell phone disco, independent vendors stood behind stalls adorned with string lights, enticing you to try out their products; from pies, to woodcut prints, to robot repair for robots that never functioned in the first place. A wall was marked with huge chalk letters: “I WANT ____TO POP UP”, inviting people enjoying the market to scrawl suggestions. Interactivity is often a crowd pleaser in public events such as this. As usual, the crawl was successful as a social gathering, bringing together a creative crowd, but not as enjoyable as an observer taking copious notes on the artworks themselves. Not one of the strongest gallery crawls that Pittsburgh has had, but an interesting one nonetheless.
The Gallery Crawl in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District offers a unique opportunity to experience art in a relaxing setting, where alcohol, live music, and conversations among viewers intermingle. During the night of the Gallery Crawl, art is not so much of a sacred subject but an element of cultural experience in downtown Pittsburgh. To explore more than thirty venues scattered within the five blocks, one has to mobilize oneself, and repeat the action of entering a gallery, getting back onto the street, and looking for the next one to enter. In such a fashion, the cultural experience extends to the open space of the neighborhood, instead of being confined within the interior, where the atmosphere is more artificially constructed.
For the Gallery Crawl, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust presents a broad range of art-encounters based on each venue’s distinctive curatorial view: from works by 6th graders at CAPA to cutting-edge digital art at the SPACE gallery, from a celebration of architecture and design at the Trust Arts Education Center to poetic reflections on the city London in Wood Street Gallery. The experience each gallery aims to bring out is unrelated to that of the others; the visitor, however, can create his own connections. Despite the entertaining nature of the overall experience, a curious visitor would not leave the Cultural District without having certain moments of realization and inspiration.
Path: An installation by Elin Hansdottir at 943 Liberty Avenue, and Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses at the SPACE gallery parallel one another in containing a physical path for visitors to walk through, but contradict one another in the ways in which they frame the walking experience. Path is a site-specific labyrinthine structure that weaves through each space it inhabits, filling the physical area with its winding course. The only light source emanates from vertical and horizontal slits throughout the construction. Owing to the structure’s sharp edges, the light is dispersed in such a way that one mistakes shadows for walls, walls for space, and light for walls. Since only one guest is allowed to walk in each time, the space is a solitary site for tranquility, self-reflection, and confrontation with the structure. Walking through Path, one leaves no trace, and interferes with no one else’s experience. Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses is “a system of interacting, fundamentally digital elements that create and display dynamic perceptual architectures.” In contrast with Path, its pathway is a site for public migration with dense interactions and distractions. Within Abby Donovan’s construction, a close-up image of wild mushrooms is transferred from a camera to a laptop connected to a projector overhead, and finally appears on the wall where the silhouette of the visitors interfere with the image. In this way, each person makes a mark that integrates itself into the piece, becoming spectacle for visitors right behind. One changes roles from observer to observed as one moves forward to the wall. Within the path, three semi-circular stainless steel balls and a large rectangular mirror unexpectedly reflect every passerby, thus reinforcing the idea that when observing one is also being observed.