Carnegie Museum of Art exhibit provokes thought

Many of Thek’s paintings, like the one pictured here, were painted on old newspapers. (credit: Alexandre Kaspar | ) Many of Thek’s paintings, like the one pictured here, were painted on old newspapers. (credit: Alexandre Kaspar | ) Thek’s “Meat Pieces” were wax sculptures made to mimic the look and texture of bloody pieces of meat. (credit: Alexandre Kaspar | ) Thek’s “Meat Pieces” were wax sculptures made to mimic the look and texture of bloody pieces of meat. (credit: Alexandre Kaspar | )

Out on the front of the Carnegie Museum of Art, there is a giant banner with the words Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective. On it is a painting of Thek diving into the ocean. The image is calm, soothing, even; one might expect the exhibit to evoke the same feelings. Once you enter the exhibit, however, you are quickly jolted out of your initial expectations into the quirky, twisted world of Paul Thek.

Thek was an American artist whose work, while popular in Europe, often went unappreciated in the United States during his lifetime. His work began to receive more critical attention, however, after his death in 1988. Diver: A Retrospective, co-curated by Elisabeth Sussman; Sondra Gilman, curator of photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and Lynn Zelevansky, the Henry J. Heinz II director of Carnegie Museum of Art, includes artwork of Thek’s that has never before been shown in the United States.

The first room of the exhibit focuses mostly on Thek’s “Meat Pieces,” which are “hyper-realistic pieces of glistening, bloody meat sculpted in wax, covered in paint, and housed in a geometric plexiglass vitrine,” as the exhibit text explains. The pieces are all gruesomely realistic — some even have larger-than-life flies permanently perched on the meat, forever feasting.

The next room in the exhibit contains the remnants of Thek’s installation artwork. Most of his installation work was created from disposable, everyday items, and as such few of his installations remain intact today. What does remain, however, provides a glimpse into Thek’s quirky psyche. One piece, “Fishman in Excelsis Table,” has a wax mold of Thek’s body covered in fish and tied to the bottom of a wooden table. Thek claimed that the fish were supposed to represent his friends, and were holding him up. Another, “Untitled (Dwarf Parade Table),” features an oversized statue of a dwarf holding up one end of a wooden table. A large, stuffed black bird is perched ominously in the corner. One cannot help but wonder at the borderline absurdity of it all. This is not art in the traditional sense; this is art that is forceful and full of personality, art that provokes more questions than answers.

The next room of the exhibit abruptly switches away from installation pieces and is instead full of paintings, mostly filled with blues and pinks. Although some still contain quirky images of volcanoes and dinosaurs, others are quieter, more introspective. The room includes multiple paintings of Thek as a diver; as the exhibit explained, “To him, the diver was isolated, physical, delving beneath the surface toward the unknown. This was Thek’s goal.” This sense of isolation is also evident in “Untitled (Burning Book Triptych),” which has three paintings of a burning book floating alone on a vast sea.

Another part of the exhibit, “Bronzes and 1970s Paintings” included just that: a collection of small bronze sculptures and paintings that Thek created, along with pages from his notebooks, which include sketches, notes, and letters. Thek’s sense of humor shines through in some of the works, particularly in “Self Portrait as a Hot Potato,” which is a painting of a potato with arms and legs. Another highlight of this room is “Untitled (Globe),” which has a glowing orb perched carefully on a nest.

The final room in the exhibit, titled “Return to New York,” was filled with small paintings topped with brass picture lights, some of which had kindergarten-sized chairs positioned in front of them. The paintings all featured bright colors and quirky images; despite this, some still held an ominous tension. “Untitled (Five Vertical Lines),” for example, has a cheery pastel background but has fiery-red lines down the center, as though someone had clawed at the painting with bloody fingernails.

Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective is not your typical art exhibit, despite what the innocent-looking painting on the museum’s banner might lead you to think. It does not contain art that is merely aesthetically pleasing, suitable to hang on your living room wall. Rather, Thek’s work grabs you by the shoulders and forces you to reconsider all your preconceived notions about what art truly is.