Pillbox

Ordinary Madness bewilders

There’s a new exhibit in town just down the road at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Running until Jan. 9, 2011, Ordinary Madness will surely leave you with raised eyebrows and a feeling of bewilderment.

The exhibit is divided into two parts. The first, featured on the main floor, is tucked away in an open room off the main walkway. An info panel describes the life and work of James Lee Byars, an artist who seems to be a perfect personification of the phrase “ordinary madness.” Most definitely a leader and not a follower in the world of art, Byars drew inspiration from his former home of Japan, particularly Shinto ritual and Noh theatre.

Byars blurs line between insanity and creativity. When he sent a 118-foot long scroll of addresses to Gustave von Groschwitz — the director of the Carnegie Museum of Art from 1963 to 1968 — was he not all there upstairs, or was it just too creative of a project for most to understand? When he had a woman dressed as a nun unfold a 1,000-foot roll of paper in a zigzag pattern across the Hall of Sculpture, was it artistic or absurd? Byras pioneered this sort of performance art, which he called “happenings.”

The second part of the exhibit, residing in the Heinz Gallery, features even more seemingly nonsensical works from various artists. The explorative nature of the exhibit is investigated because, as an information panel states, “The ordinary is in fact laced with the contradictory, uncanny, and surreal.”

Trisha Donnelly’s “Sea Battles” looks like ordinary pages of sheet music, with chords of notes etched in. But the music notes are strategically placed: Donnelly transposed wartime naval confrontation plans onto sheet music, where each note represents a ship.

“The Temptation of St. Anthony - The Forms” by Tim Rollins brings the characters inside a story so all spectators can see. Rollins and his students took 42 copies of a page from Gustave Flaubert’s book The Temptation of St. Anthony — specifically, a dialogue with Death — and combined blood, alcohol, and acrylic to produce a grid of emotion on the page that was hidden inside the author’s text.

In the center of one of the rooms sits Benny Le Va’s “On Corner-On Edge-On Center Shatter (Within the Series of Layered Pattern Attacks).” Composed of four piles of five panes of shattered glass, the piece was not very remarkable because glass art is something we’ve all seen before. But for some reason, the geometry of the panes, the cracks that seem strategically placed in the glass, resonates some beauty.

Among the other peculiar pieces is Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz’s “The Billionaire,” a hollowed-out TV set with a detonator-looking device inside, with a red neon counter increasing every second. Then there’s Peter Campus’s “Three Transitions,” which is a video that seems to show the artist “wiping” away portions of his face and ripping open his own back, only to crawl out of it.

One of the pieces that might be recognizable from billboards is a photograph of two young twin girls standing on a couch beside a creature that resembles Yoda from the Star Wars movies. Lina Bertucci’s “Haim Steinbach, 1988” features Steinbach, a fellow artist, wearing a mask of Yoda, the only oddity in the otherwise-normal photograph. The monochromatic tint adds to the haunting eeriness of the image.

Ordinary Madness is bizarre. It’s strange. Quite frankly, it’s madness. But who’s to say: Is it anti-art, or art in its purest form?