Pittsburgh Glass Center, American Idols through January 31

Pittsburgh Glass Center: American Idols

Pittsburgh’s art institutions have a tendency to place themselves within a post-industrial context, referencing a grand narrative that begins at steel’s arrival and ends at the recovery from its collapse. Pittsburgh Glass Center’s revitalizing efforts subvert this tradition – behind its modern urban facade lies an effort to reconnect to Pittsburgh’s obscured pre-steel history, a time when the city exported glass nationwide.  Further underscoring this difference is the pragmatism of its practice. A bustling hub of activity, the Glass Center successfully plays multiple roles as a gallery space, a glass arts education center, a host for resident artists, and a large-scale fabricator. Through its considerable resources and talent pool, it seeks to cultivate a renewed appreciation of the underrepresented glass medium within the Pittsburgh region.

To this end, currently on display in the Hodge Gallery of the Glass Center isAmerican Idols, a solo exhibition by John Moran.  Relevant in light of the election season, American Idols toys with the treatment of the President of the United States as a character and a celebrity rather than a politician.  The exhibition consists of a long hall filled with busts of all forty-three individuals that held the Presidency, but they are far from the stately Greco-Roman renderings that grace most civic buildings. Here, they are clothed in modern attire, their colorful, unconventional glass visages grotesquely halfway between caricature and reality.

There is a crude, unpolished wit to American Idols. Each president is labeled with a nickname given while he was in office, and the images on his shirt give a humorous summation of the myth surrounding him. For example,  “Jack” Kennedy’s shirt bears a print of Marilyn Monroe, referencing his rumored extramarital affair. “Tricky Dick” Nixon wears a prison uniform, referencing his role in the Watergate Scandal. Visitors may vote for their favorite bust, a reflection of both national elections and, distressingly, reality television. Here, the American President is a wholly manufactured figure.

Though the scale of Moran’s project is impressive given the unhurried, methodical action necessary for good glasswork, it also seems lacking in thought. The presidents’ vestments consist of actual clothes covered in epoxy to give the look of glass – a tacky aesthetic. The graphics on less historically well-known presidents lack the punch of those on presidents who truly stand out in the American mythology. The placement of the busts in the gallery space follows no real ordering, and the red carpet viewers walk on is ragged, giving the sense that curational decision making was rushed.

More troubling is Moran’s unwillingness to acknowledge the conflicting infamy and celebrity of our current president, Barack Obama. His label of Obama as the “hip-hop president” seems a rather timid response to the complex inter-media and inter-party conflict taking place over just what legacy will define Obama post-presidency. American Idols allows viewers to sit back and laugh at the historical interplay between public eye and politics, but this attempt at broad appeal creates an inconsistency that prevents it from being truly insightful.

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Pittsburgh Glass Center: John Moran: American Idol

The presidents sit smiling with stubs for arms, placed on white pedestals and looking vacant for whoever decides to walk down the red carpet dividing them.  In “American Idols,” an exhibition of John Moran’s presidential busts at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, all 43 of the United States presidents are sculpted from glass and adorned with gleaned clothing coated with resin.  The result is a somewhat uncanny, doll-like, and baby faced version of each of these United States leaders.

At the end of the runway a droopy-eyed Barack Obama is hanging out with his pal Bill Clinton.  They look down at you from underneath a sign from the American popular reality TV show, American Idol. The presidents all sport casual wear; plaid shirts, sweatshirts, or t-shirts, and look at you with open, glazed, blank stares. FDR’s pink face peers up, his sweatshirt reads “keep it in the family.”

Although the presidents here are labeled as ‘idols,’ the viewer walks looking down at most of them. This exhibition makes these unattainable TV figures into accessible, everyday folk.  Moran labeled each president with a charming pet name that alludes to an event or personality trait of the man so as to hint at his identity. Instead of being arranged in chronologically or alphabetically, Moran categorized these men into groups such as those that were KKK members, those that are featured on US currency, and those who did not have to be elected into office.

With all of these presidential figures in one room one becomes uncomfortably aware of how very male and how very white (or in this case, more rosy cheeked and pink) this group of leaders has been. Moran acknowledges this in his grouping of ‘black presidents,’ which consists of Barak Obama and Bill Clinton, who drew a lot of support from the black community in his election. Toni Morrison is quoted as saying that he was the ‘first black president,’ as he ‘displays almost every trope of blackness.’

At the entrance of the exhibition is a ‘vote for your favorite president’ box, in which visitors can slip in a piece of paper with the name of their favorite man into the crude voting tool.  Looking around at the busts, a feeling of some hopelessness, but also a sense of confusion and disconcertedness becomes overwhelming.  These figures, with thick eyelids and glazed eyes, are United States figureheads. By placing at shoulder height, one feels slightly nervous about the commanders in chief being so childlike and bleary-eyed.

What is at first a satirical and comical show speaks to issues of representation in the media and public perception of events.  In a culture in which the presidential debates are shown in the same style as reality television shows such as American Idol, the importance and graspable reality of the presidential elections is dubious.  To the American TV viewer there is little difference between watching girls compete to be the next top model and two men fight for the next presidency.

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Pittsburgh Glass Center

“Steel City” is the phrase conjured in most people’s minds when thinking of Pittsburgh.  However, “Glass City” is closer to the truth.

The Pittsburgh Glass Center represents a revival of the industry that originally monopolized the city’s factories, before the rise of the steel industry pushed it to near extinction. In the early 1900s, Pittsburgh flourished with glass artisans and factories.  The Glass Center was created in 2002 by Kate Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, artists involved in Carnegie Mellon University’s glass art program who were moved to create a space for the craft after the University’s glass program was shut down. Mulcahy and Desmett purchased the building from the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, and in the years since, The Glass Center has worked to revitalize both the community and the art of glass work in the region through its multiple programs.

The Glass Center is an exciting space because it functions on many different levels, since it houses the Hodge Gallery, which features the work of a Resident Artist at the Center, the Resident Artist program itself, an apprenticeship program, and classes that are offered both to University students and to the public.

The Hodge Gallery currently houses resident artist Jon Moran’s show, entitled “American Idols”.  Moran has created busts of all forty three U.S. presidents, sculpted from glass with facial features and hair carved in epoxy and painted. The busts are arrayed on white pedestals along a celebrity-esque red carpet, and at the very back of the exhibit, the American Idol TV show logo is hung on the wall, highlighting the role of the president as a celebrity as well as a politician.   Rather than clothing them in period-appropriate attire, Moran has garbed them in modern clothing, ranging from a bedazzled uniform (Andrew Jackson) to sports jerseys, and displays their nicknames beneath the pedestals rather than their actual names. Though the technical skill of the artist is inherent in the busts, the exhibit functioned only on the level of a political caricature, poking fun at famous names.  Though humorous, it left me wanting for some deeper message.

The accessibility of the Center creates a thrilling sense of opportunity: the gallery is free and the staff members are friendly and extremely informative, offering tours of the workshops and furnace rooms as well as an opportunity to watch master glass blowers at work.  When walking through the building, I was entranced by the work being created right before my eyes, and immediately began wondering if I had enough room in my schedule to take a glass class myself.

That’s not to say that glass art is a skill easily picked up.  My tour guide was quick to mention the scarcity of glass programs currently in universities, as well as the grueling amount of training (sometimes more than twenty years) required to become proficient in glass art.  But it is the juxtaposition of these skilled masters and the rare nature of their craft with the accessibility offered by the Center itself that makes the site such a valuable resource.

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American Idols

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

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

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

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

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