November 1, 2007

Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is overflowing with non-profit galleries. Due to the availability of generous funding from the Carnegies, Mellons and other industrial barons, these galleries don’t need to sell the art to make a buck. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the local starving artists, but it explains why Pittsburgh is awash in digital media and installation projects. The website for the Mattress Factory Art Museum, touts “art you can get into — room-sized environments, created by in-residence artists.” Artists are encouraged to apply by submitting examples of previous work but not to lodge specific proposals. MFAM prefers that the artists respond to their surroundings during the residency, kind of like an extended, cerebral improv night at a local comedy club.

During a recent visit to deliver work for the Blogger Show at Digging Pitt Gallery, I was fortunate to see MFAM’s three permanent 1983 James Turrell light installations. The pieces, which were created specifically for MFAM, seem to pose eloquent spatial and aural mysteries about the character of human perception. Also on the itinerary was "Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works With Light," featuring some of Nauman’s pre-1985 neon pieces, at the Warhol Museum. Although the pieces are amusing and provocative, they aren’t nearly as resonant as his later video work.

After a day spent listening to voiceovers, ambient noise, and other sound installations, I was glad to stumble upon a quiet show of contemporary Australian Aboriginal paintings at the downtown gallery Space. Although the dotted patterning associated with Aboriginal art goes back thousands of years, it wasn’t until 1971, when a schoolteacher suggested that the sand painters experiment with acrylic paints, that Aboriginal artists began painting on canvas. The abstract paintings, made by the artists from a town called Utopia, are informed by traditional stories and creation myths of the Aboriginal people. At first glance, the paintings all look the same, constructed with a simplified language of line, dot and short brush stroke, but within this common language, each artist’s work reveals an idiosyncratic distinctness. Molly Pwerle’s muddied colors and heartbreakingly irregular lines; Susie Hunter’s bright, cartoonishly playful flower patterns; and Gloria Petyarre’s assuredly consistent, undulating patterns all suggest something intimate and unique about the individual artists and their daily experience. This was the biggest painting show in town, and it was organized by the Robert Steele Gallery – a commercial gallery from New York, which represents all the artists in the show. The implication may be that local painters lack local support.

Exhibitions:
“New Works from Utopia,” organized by Robert Steele Gallery, NY. Space, Pittsburgh, PA. Through Dec. 31. Reviewed by Kurt Shaw in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Our Way, Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Lockhart River,” curated by Sally Butler at the University of Queensland. Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Through from Nov. 16. Reviewed by Nicole Cotroneo in the NYTimes.

"Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works With Light," curated by Joseph D. Ketner at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA. Through Dec. 30.

“James Turrell,” Mattress Factory Art Museum, Pittsburgh, PA. Permanent installation.

"The Blogger Show," Organized by John Morris and Susan Constanse. Digging Pitt Gallery, Pittsburgh, PA. Through January 12.

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