Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pittsburgh art trip (including the International)

I spent a weekend in Pittsburgh recently. In my past life as a violinist, I lived in Pittsburgh for seven years as a member of the orchestra there. I always knew it as a vibrant community for the arts. While I lived there I was just finding my photographic legs, so I was exploring the galleries and museums in the area. There was always a lot going on. Pittsburgh has a monumental philanthropic history. Until not too long ago, Pittsburgh had the most millionaires per capita than any other US city and was the home to more corporate headquarters than any other US city. Though this has changed, the effect that the families named Mellon, Scaife, Heinz, Rockefeller, Frick, Carnegie, et al., combined with the corporate legacies of US Steel, Westinghouse, Bayer, Heinz, et al. has been to endow this city with a wealth of art and architecture few cities can match.

The 800 pound gorilla in this collection has always been the Carnegie Museum of Art; a huge and encompassing collection of institutions including the Museum of Natural History and the Warhol. Since 1896, there has been some kind of biennial or triennial at the Carnegie. I quote here from the website:

"In 1950 the exhibition, renamed the Pittsburgh International, became biennial, and in 1955, triennial. During the 1970s the name was changed to the International Series, and broke with tradition to present one- and two-person exhibitions. In 1977, the exhibition featured the work of Pierre Alechinsky and in 1979 that of Eduardo Chillida and Willem de Kooning. The show returned to the original 1896 anthology format in 1982, and the name Carnegie International was adopted. The exhibition was reestablished as the preeminent survey of international contemporary art in North America and has been presented approximately every three years since that time. "

Well, I don't know what reviews the Carnegie has been reading, but I think it has been some years since the International has been viewed as the "preeminent survey of international contemporary art in North America". And if this iteration of the survey is any kind of indication of future relevance, then David Shrigley's work included in this year's show can be used as a poster for all future Internationals.

In fact, to this viewer, Mr. Shrigley's works were part of the very small list of engaging and on-message works. It seemed to me that this International couldn't make up its mind whether it was a survey of well-known and recognized current art or a biennial on a particular curatorial theme. In either case, I was dismayed at how little of the work seemed new, "important" (a problematic term , I know), or communicative.

As is my preference, I will concentrate on what I found positive. One spectacular piece was Thomas Hirschhorn's "Cavemanman" - a post-apocolyptic view of where we might live if society reduces us all to living like street people. This is an overwhelming immersive environment that can only be hinted at in pictures. Mr. Hirschhorn has created a labyrinth of caves made of cardboard and packing tape, and festooned them with layer upon layer of images and detritus from consumer society. It was a virtuoso performance to create this space, it WAS on message to the theme of the show, and had power to speak in literal and implied terms. I loved it. A few inadequate pictures here.

Also impressive was Phil Collins video about the relationship between language and power. The video is about the struggle for independence in Kosovo and uses ordinary Kosovo people - speaking in Serbo-Croat - saying why they no longer speak Serbo-Croat. It is a wonderfully layered and complex picture. One sees the pain and suffering of the people in the stories, and yet no real answer or position is limned by the video. As much as I liked this work, it highlights one of my pet peeves about current "art" video. This video has a clear narrative thread. It is best to see it from start to finish. At least I think so. I think video like this is ill-served in a gallery environment. There should be posted start and end times so people can have the option to see the whole work. Other art video has no real narrative thread. It can be seen more like a painting, i.e. you stand there looking for as long as you need to "get it" or as long as it gives you pleasure to look. But seeing it from a predetermined starting point will not change your understanding. Mr. Collins' work is not like this. So many times I see video work in museum and in galleries that are really damaged by this perspective. I hope curators will move towards a more satisfying way of showing work like this as the medium develops.

Across town there was another group show survey. It was at a small museum and artist residency space called the Mattress Factory. (Mattress Factory website) The difference between the two shows could not have been more stark. In every instance where the International failed, the MF shined. Where the International had a roster that was long and dilute, the MF had a roster that was honed, tight, on message, and almost without fail, satisfying. The primary show on view there now is called "Inner Outer Space" and is curated by Dara Myers-Kingsley. The show explores the limits of the physical walls of the exhibition space. Some work explodes that wall literally by going through windows, walls and floors to the outside. Other work uses technology like wireless data transmission or faxes to "break" the walls of the museum. It was a fascinating and beautiful show. I encourage you to visit the website where there are far more professional pictures than mine of the works and a clear, easy-to-read essay on each work.

There are a couple of ways in which I think Dara's show is great. First, it meshed with the history of artist residency at the MF. James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama both created work there that is now in the permanent collection. Dara states that these works inspired the selection of artists for the show. Once you have seen "Inner Outer Space" you can move into other buildings that make of the MF complex which are showing current installations by artists working here. Some of this work was great. More on that in a bit, but I want to stress how cool it was to see a show so intimately knit into the fiber of the institution in which it was shown. This made my point #2 even more satisfying in that her theme was clear, clearly stated, and then actually realized. Why is this so unusual? So many curators seem to reach for the conceptual stars and end up pointing the telescope at their feet. Not here. We're engaged in Dara's idea from the beginning and finding our path is a pleasure of discovery. Third, maybe least important but nice that it's here, the work was beautiful. I mean visually satisfying and containing much for the eye to engage. I don't mean pretty. But beautiful it was.

A few faves: Luca Buvoli's wall-bustin' sculpture called " The Instant Before Incident(Marinelli's Drive 1908)"

Sarah Oppenheimer's vertigo inducing installation that breaks through floors and windows to invent new perspective.

Mark Garry's thread piece called "being here" was spectacular. Sometimes it was almost invisible - touching on the ineffable - and other times it sang with colors and richness. A revelatory piece. Make sure to see the additional pictures on the MF website, or better yet, go see it. It's amazing. There are wonderful echoes of Sandback, Turrell, and Agnes Martin here, but the voice is individual and assured.

almost not there.....

more present....

singing with color. Wow.

Last and not at all least are the installations of Turrell, Kusama, and Yumi Kori. All defy photographic represention, but are all worth the price of admission on their own. Some of you may remember Yumi's installation at the Japan Society Group show curated by Eric Shiner. This was every bit as good as that and more. If you're anywhere near Pittsburgh this summer, go see it.

And a last few notes on other artists at the MF.

HousePoem by Huang Xiang. An entire house has been turned into a work of political calligraphy.

William Asatasi's wall drawing which is located in Allan Wexler's "Sitting Rooms for an Artist in Residence"

A handrail permanent installation that was part of a larger installation by the artists Monica M. Bock, Mary Carlisle, Cathy Lynn Gasser, Melissa Goldstein, Sandrine Sheon, and Catherine Smith. the handrail has a small gutter running water between the handrail and the wall. When you grasp for the handrail, your hand is dipped in warm, running water. Really icky, but a wonderful, interactive work.

Last, Jean Highstein made a concrete over wood monolithic object that takes over a room in the way that the work of Monika Sosnowska does. This piece could have easily been in the "Inside Outside" show as it challenged the limits of the room in which it was housed. Yet another example of how synchronous and organic the various shows of the Mattress Factory presented themselves. This was a real treat and I look forward to future visits to Pittsburgh to see what's happening there. If it continues like it has been, MF won't be having any taxidermied kittens announcing their demise anytime soon.


  1. Hey thanks for the really nice comments about my work, it was my first dhow in the United States and a wonderful opportunity and experience ,I had wanted to show tat the Mattress factory since I was an undergraduate, I really like the shots you took any chance of a copy?,although I use computers on a daily basis and to edit my films i am a bit of a luddite and am probably not following Bloging protocol, if so apologies , again many thanks Mark

  2. hey thanks for the kind comments , Mark Garry

  3. hey thanks for the kind comments , Mark Garry