Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Artist of the Year, Charlee Brodsky, August 10 through October 28, 2012

Charlee Brodsky’s Good Dog at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

Looking at Charlee Brodsky’s curriculum vitae, one quickly visualizes a skillful documentarian and a prolific photographer. Fittingly, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts distinguished her compelling body of work with the Artist of the Year Award this past August. The award, disclosed to a regional artist two years in advance of public announcement, stipulates the creation of a solo exhibition of new work. Brodsky has used the two years leading up to her exhibition to create images that, aesthetically, are radically different from the works that have gained her recognition. Her grave explorations of aspects of the human condition – including interaction with nature, friendship, discrimination, and artistic development – normally captured through human subjects, are here captured through a combination of the written word and her chipper white terrier Max.

Walking through the space, I couldn’t help but notice Good Dog humorously brews an atmospheric mix of a library and a dog show. The words of literary giants, famous 20th century artists, and influential naturalists are set against colorful photographs of Max traipsing about in various Pittsburgh locales. The narratives that take place on the walls are mirrored in artists’ books lying on pedestals placed throughout the space. The books, the true centerpieces of Good Dog, showcase an attention to craft in their carefully accordion-bound pages, a sensibility missing from the unframed photographs on the walls.

While every image of our protagonist Max is beautifully shot, there is a problematic cognitive dissonance present in the exhibition. It is perhaps epitomized by a photograph in the Mary Shelley inspired book Monster, showing a smiling Max, tongue lolling, with the caption “Why did you create a monster so hideous?” Such cute and silly imagery makes it hard to take the show seriously, and one struggles to grasp at deeper themes. Brodsky set out to make a show transcending a glorified Facebook album of her dog, but to members of the Facebook generation – my generation – the impression of banality sets in far too easily and on a regular basis.

Charlee Brodsky’s decision to take a more lighthearted approach to serious themes was not necessarily badly considered – indeed, it was a daring choice in the context of a show given to reward the sober work that has solidified her reputation. Despite Brodsky’s obvious talent, I was left with the impression that her terrier made an amusing but blunt subject choice.

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Artist of the Year, Charlee Brodsky

If crazy dog person was a term thrown around, it may be used derogatively by some about Pittsburgh Artist of the Year Charlee Brodsky. Walking into her exhibit at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, you’ll see walls upon walls of photographs taken on a Canon Rebel of her dog Max. At a first glance, that is exactly what it appears to be. Next to the pictures on name placards though, there’s quotes from great thinkers and artists from Shakespeare and Mary Shelley to Jackson Pollock and Andy Worhol. The visual imagery closely matches either what is being said, or the style of the artist to an extent. Next to Jackson Pollock stating, “Abstract painting is abstract”, Brodsky’s photo places Max in front of a weathered wall of graffiti-gone-wrong. Warhol claims, “I am a deeply superficial person” next to a mirrored print of the same wide shot of Max facing away from a wall, as a mimic of Warhol’s style.

While the gallery itself was impressive, the artwork began with the books. These books are a reminder of childhood picture books, story telling at its finest. Matching statements with imagery does spark the imagination, sees Max search for love beside Dostoyevsky’s words. The accordion-bound books are fragile, but white gloves are not required to handle them. The larger prints on the wall are represented in a fashion similar to the books, but with an identity of their own. The papers are hung without frames, with 2 simple magnets near the corners of each print. Some of the quotes are on name placards besides the images, others are printed directly on the paper themselves, while still others have been painted on the walls. The variation both compartmentalizes and adds a bit of narrative to each series.

After looking around for a bit, Executive Director at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Charlie Humphery came in and offered some insight on the exhibition. He spoke of how her work might be perceived as “glorified Facebooking”, and how she consciously walked that fine line. Others that worked around her poked fun while she worked, asking questions like “But what have you really been up to?”

Her favorite compliment she’d received about the work was a friend of her stating that she “no longer saw a dog in the photographs, for the dog had vanished and had become a human.”

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The Artist of the Year Award

The Artist of the Year Award, given annually by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts since 1949, is awarded to an individual living or working in the Southwestern Pennsylvania who is making “ significant creative contributions”[1] to the area. This year’s award winner is Charlee Brodsky, an artist who has worked in the region for over 30 years, and teaches photography at Carnegie Mellon University.

The exhibition consists of several series of photographs of Max Brodsky, accompanied by quotes from well-known artists and excerpts from famous works of literature. The presentation leaves the artwork somewhat vulnerable, at least by typical standards of artwork display. Brodsky’s inkjet prints are hung gently on the walls with museum magnets, while artist books are displayed closed but ready to view without gloves to protect the pages.

Snapshots of Max, the furry white canine posing stoically in ambiguous Pittsburgh locations, or snuffling upon a grassy background, act as illustrations to the words of who Brodsky calls her collaborators.  The quotes, which provide an inlet into the objectives of the work, are taken from classics writers such as Dostoevsky, Mary Shelley, Shakespeare, and John Muir, and artists such as Brancusi, Louise Bourgeois, and Miró.

Most intriguing is the presence of the bright purple leash in almost all of the photographs.  While Max is oftentimes the singular being in the photos, the presence of this symbolic tie of dog and owner makes the artist a constant presence. The quotes in the series Monster for example, a collaboration with author Mary Shelley, suggest a solitary and outcast existence, but the leash is a constant reminder of Max as man’s best friend, as the leash hints at his ownership.

When placed on the wall, the photographs are more reminiscent of an online web album: a show of snapshots of a dog walk that somebody curated for the internet. The books, which are modestly displayed on white pedestals around the gallery and on a shelf at the door to the exhibition, are more successful at alleviating this tumblr aesthetic.  Because of the handmade and tactile quality, emphasized by the lack of gloves to handle them with, the viewer feels an unhindered ability to touch and read the books.

The pairing of the banality of a dog walk with excerpts taken from masters of art and literature provide a humorous approach to representing the human condition which will be appealing to dog lovers. The exhibition will be up for viewing until October 28th.

[1] “2012 Artist of the Year.” Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2012. <http://pittsburgharts.org/2012-artist-year&gt;.

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Pittsburgh’s Artist of the Year

Within the pleasant sterility of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, up a crisp, and yet oddly ornate, staircase, and down a short hallway lies the Center’s newest exhibition for Pittsburgh’s Artist of the Year, Charlee Brodsky. Bestowed annually since 1949, the award seeks to recognize those “making significant creative contributions to Southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond”. The honor also comes with a monetary award to be used in the completion of future works for the center.

The exhibition itself centers around the adventures of Brodsky’s jovial dog Max, a White West Highland Terrier, as he explores a variety of settings, from deserted industrial landscapes and city streets to idyllic woodlands. The artist documents these doggie expeditions with a series of photographs, with Max the only common figure. In this way, he becomes a sort of hero, investigating the world with a genuine and readily apparent sense of wonder. Indeed, after viewing just a few photographs, the exhibit-goer gains a good sense of Max’s personality and, strangely enough, begins to identify with the dog. It is a credit to the artist that this connection between her chosen protagonist and the viewer develops. Max’s curiosity about the world around him – sometimes even the most mundane objects, like a tree stump or rusted railroad track – helps spur the viewer to reignite his or her own wonder. How did flowers manage to sprout amongst all this rubbish? What does this streetlamp smell like? How did all this get here? As Max tries to make sense of his world, so too does the viewer reexamine things he or she thought had been long-since understood. In other words, Brodsky’s exhibit forces us to engage with those things which have fallen into the amorphous realm of the mundane.

These photographs are also complemented by a series of textual quotes, with different sections of the exhibit featuring a distinct “theme.” One area, for example, incorporates blurbs related to art, while another includes quotes lifted from famous literary works and authors, among them Dostoevsky, Frankenstein, and Shakespeare. This intermingling of text and image is not new for Brodsky, who has long held an interest in their relationship. In 2005, she published a book of her own photographs alongside poems by Pittsburgh poet Jim Daniels entitled Street. Here this intermingling achieves mixed results. The most affecting elements of the exhibit occur when the text forms a definite narrative, as in the Frankenstein portion. The art-quote section does not add a significant dimension to her photographs and only serves to jumble the viewer’s appreciation of them. There is also a sense of being overwhelmed – the exhibit may have been more poignant if the artist had been more discriminating in her choice of photographs. Quality over quantity. Despite all this, the viewer leaves the gallery satisfied, wondering how he or she could be so affected by something so – at least superficially – humorous.

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Charlee Brodsky’s Artist of the Year Exhibit at The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

Photographer and Carnegie Mellon University professor Charlee Brodsky is currently featured in the solo exhibition Good Dog as the ‘Artist of the Year’, an award established in 1949 by Pittsburgh Center for the Arts as a way to honor regional artists.  Good Dog runs August 10th to October 28th at PCA, with a $5 entry fee for non members.  Brodsky was notified of her award two years ago, allowing her time to create the exhibition, which combines her photography with text from separate sources: various visual artists, the preservationist John Muir, and writers Mary Shelley, William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  The photographs are grouped by the text, and lining the entrance are several books containing the photographs and text on a smaller scale; these are displayed on pedestals throughout.  The subjects of all of these texts vary from art, to love, nature, and hate, but the photographs only feature Brodsky’s own dog, Max.

Max’s adorable appearance was the source of my initial confusion over the photographs’ relationship with the text.  Brodsky’s photographs, though technically expert, bring to mind Facebook pictures of a friend’s dog, or dog calendars.  Brodsky mentions the latter in her self-written artist plaque, in which she acknowledges her peers’ dubious comments about the work’s merit.  Though impressed with Brodsky’s acknowledgement of such criticism, I was first inclined to agree with her detractors.  The juxtaposition of Max with the text “Even you turned from me in disgust” (under the Shelley Monster section) is comical, and reminiscent of internet memes.  However, the more serious conversation Brodsky is attempting to convey becomes evident in the plaques she includes with each section, in which she explains the connection between Max and the text. As Brodsky states on her Artists plaque, she identifies ‘the little white dog’ as ‘the artist’.  Brodsky has cast Max in the role of the everyman, allowing him to become a character in each separate text.  The inclusion of the text is just as important as the photographs themselves; for this reason, Brodsky rightly calls this relationship a ‘collaboration’.  Brodsky takes the lofty themes of literature to a relatable level by the inclusion of tiny, unassuming Max.  As she stated on the exhibit plaque, the work ‘started as play’.  Though the playfulness and humor in Good Dog has its limits, it also enables the viewer to access the text in a completely new way.

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Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 2012 Artist of Year

As if pulled straight from the Facebook album of a dog-lover, hundreds of photographs of a little white terrier line the walls of Charlee Brodsky’s Artist of the Year exhibition at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The unframed images float in the center of white pages, evoking web browser windows and InDesign mock-ups. Closer inspection reveals that artist’s quotes and excerpts from famous books caption the unframed prints. In the first gallery, one set of captions taken from Frankenstein imposes a narrative onto a group of photographs whose only common subject is the ever-present dog, Max. Walking along the walls, a story unfolds from the combination of Brodsky’s photographs and the borrowed words of Mary Shelley. At times the collaborative effect is humorous, such as when a caption ascribes some conventionally human characteristic to the dog. But unfortunately this short-lived humor is the most memorable aspect of the works, whose gimmick comes across as overdone.

Brodsky is able to surpass an initial identification with Facebook pet photography through her careful appropriation of text. The captions succeed in giving Max a voice, a consciousness, and a prescribed meaning within Brodsky’s imagined narratives. The photos in the main gallery, otherwise visually homogenous, are sectioned by their captions into groups. Each group is a retelling of a well-known story in which Max supplants the original protagonist. This collaborative aspect of the works effectively personifies Max, and appears to be the product of Brodsky’s clean, well-executed technique. On pedestals sit black-bound artist’s books that encapsulate and reiterate the narratives on the wall. Although Brodsky describes her exhibition as being “a reading experience first,” I found that the prints dominated visually, making the black books seem more like an afterthought.

Max’s likeness fills the galleries, bringing to mind stereotyped depictions of religious figures. The striking repetition transforms Max’s image into a sort of icon — a symbol with a mutable significance. But rather than enriching the viewer’s understanding of the photographs or referenced texts, this process adds little depth to either. Despite being propagated and moved from meaningful context to meaningful context, Max’s icon retains its original vacancy. This strange paradox left me feeling ambivalent towards the work, like I had missed some key to appreciating the exhibition. After I viewed the works, I felt as though I could not define what Brodsky had done beyond telling a story or eliciting a laugh.

Reference:  http://pittsburgharts.org/2012-artist-year

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Pittsburgh Center for the Arts: Good Dog

It is uncommon to find small white dogs in a contemporary gallery. The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, however, seems to be overrun.

The exhibit shows the work of Pittsburgh Artist of the Year, Charlee Brodsky, who has spent the last two years conceptualizing and producing this show. The award has a rich history, stretching back to its creation in 1949. In choosing the artist for this award, the panel of four (including the artistic director, the lead curator and two outside judges) seeks someone with a significant track record of exhibiting in both solo and group settings. It is also important that the artist be a part of the regional arts community, and is widely respected by their peers. Brodsky, who has done a number of projects dealing with the social landscape of Pittsburgh seems to fit the bill; however, she includes a candid commentary about her peers not seeing this project as a legitimate endeavor, considering its visual connection to the pet photography craze in social networking circles. Brodsky got her bachelors from Sarah Lawrence, her masters from Yale and is now a professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, so her skills in photographic composition cannot be contested. It is in the juxtaposition of the image and text that one finds its conceptual depth.

Brodsky’s choices in display presented these stories in two very different manners: through dense black books and delicately magnet-hung prints. While the books had a strong linear and narrative feel, the prints on the walls relinquished control on the point of entry for the viewer.

Reward for the audience comes with reading. Brodsky’s editorial hand in selecting quotes was what challenged the culture of pet photography’s frivolity. For example, in While the Sun is Bright, she uses the romantic words of Shakespeare, but one only finds out at the end of the exhibit that the lover dogs we see in the images are actually both male. These dogs become involuntary actors for stories detailing complex human emotions. The result is a kind of levity with a seriously inquisitive core. Musings in idealism by thinkers like John Muir and Dostoyevsky are partnered with the real and tangible movements of this small white dog. The viewer is left wondering about how these dogs walk a fine line between canine exploration and play, and contemplation that is almost human.

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Charlee Brodsky: GOOD DOG

Charlee Brodsky has chosen her unwitting dog Max to play the leading role at the Pittsburgh Centre of the Arts’ annual Artist of the Year exhibition, curated by Charlie Humphrey. The terrier is present in every single image, frameless on the wall or on the pages of a series of uniform handmade books. As a photographer, and currently a professor at CMU, Brodsky continues to create photo narratives that explore and reveal burdens of illness and the body, though it may appear to be a show on one’s pet adoration at first sight. Max accompanies carefully chosen selections of texts from writers such as Shelley, Muir, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky, with each writer to their own section of the exhibition.

When entering the space we’re drawn to the room titled The Artist, but rather than finding anything biographical from Brodsky we end up following Max, who urges us to grab onto his purple leash as he wanders around Pittsburgh. Quotes from prominent artists are inserted between images, illustrating what captivates artists as well as their unique awareness– getting inspiration from the ordinary, the deteriorating, the man-made. Max is the Artist, showing us this on his course. The Pittsburgh cityscape continues into the next room, where quotes of Muir float below the photos on a dark green wall.  The wilderness that the naturalist and conservationist is referring to, next to the industrial background that Max is exploring, feel contradictory even though they enjoyed it as much as each other.

There is a clearer correlation between the images and each line of Shelley, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky; the narrative is more linear and the photos were seemingly planned, or rather, or maybe just with as much direction as a dog can follow. Max, as Frankenstein, poses as an unborn creature of a shadow – “Hateful day when I received life”  – and manages to look a pitiful creature, made an outcast from his looks. In all her pieces, it’s the humourous contrast between the social issues she raises and her lovable dog that emphasises its seriousness and absurdity. By conveying human emotion and experience through a dog, we can study ourselves slightly more objectively. If any part of the exhibition looked like “glorified facebooking” as Brodsky was keenly aware, it would be the imagery supporting they words of Shakespeare in While the Sun is Bright, or in the Darkest Night. With the two dogs Sam and Max acting as lovers she comes perhaps a little too close to the stereotypical obsessive photos that pet adorers are known to take.

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When the photographic eye meets the poetic eye

Charlee Brodsky, Artist of the Year, is featured at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts from August 10 to October 28. As a photographer and a poet, Brodsky is interested in the interplay between the visual and the verbal, insofar as they create new meanings for each other. Her recent photo series The Good Dog(originally made as hand-made books), presented here at the PCA, follows the trail of her dog Max.  The work unfolds five groups of narration placed side by side with words borrowed from well known literary figures: Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Mary Shelley, and John Muir, to be specific. The new series departs from Brodsky’s earlier works in physical format and subject matter, although it continues the tale of Brodsky’s tender, motherly approach to her subjects, as well as her keen engagement with social issues and the human psyche.

The photographic narrative of The Good Dog itself generates little in the way of depth and sophistication, although it does offer a pleasing kind of humor and delicacy.  Nonetheless, when read together with the words of great writers, what the photographs show—the particularity of the dog Max staring at the camera, sniffing around the garbage or standing by the side of an empty beer bottle—attains to a kind of universality. The text here, instead of being a visual equivalent to the image, translates Max’s experience into the realm of human comprehension.

In the exhibit Dual Tracks/ words by John Muir, one follows the track of Max, which starts with an image of him facing a flight of stairs, and a juxtaposed quote from Muir, “I wish I knew where I was going.”  Max appears to repeat this gesture of downward searching throughout the entire narrative in a state of nervous anticipation.  At certain points, one may feel compelled to put oneself in the place of Max—wandering around, aimless seeking, and only getting reassurance from Muir’s voice… Muir was known as a naturalist and preservationist, who profoundly shaped the very categories through which Americans understand and envision their relationships with the natural world. He was often quoted in books by nature photographers such as Ansel Adams to illustrate a world of the sublime—a natural world of awesome power, inhuman character, brooding potentiality, and incomprehensible force.  In Brodsky’s work, by contrast, Muir’s writings produce, in the form of the domestic animal Max, a quite different nature, one that is understandable, anthropomorphic, at most slightly quirky, and essentially cute.


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