The quarterly Gallery Crawl makes a splash in Downtown's Cultural District
A car covered in doll appendages, a 40-foot rubber duck on the Allegheny River, and multisensory exhibitions — Friday night was one of many strange and exciting firsts as Pittsburghers and students alike gathered in Downtown’s Cultural District for the quarterly Gallery Crawl, hosted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
This year, 28 businesses and galleries, plus one bridge, opened their doors to the people of Pittsburgh to encourage exploration of the rich and diverse culture the city has to offer.
The highlight of the evening was the Rubber Duck Bridge Party, hosted by Mikey and Big Bob from KISS FM’s Morning Freak Show on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. The party blocked off car traffic on the bridge as Mikey and Big Bob blasted music and vendors of food, art, and memorabilia set up shop.
The event celebrated the unveiling of The Rubber Duck Project, a four-story-tall floating rubber duck designed by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman. Hofman’s “Rubber Duck” has traveled the world, floating through Amsterdam, Belgium, Sydney, and Hong Kong — but Friday night marked its U.S. debut. “It’s a cool thing that it’s in Pittsburgh first,” said sophomore statistics major Caitlin Selvaggi. “[Pittsburgh] is an up-and-coming city, and this is a symbol of that.”
Hofman’s website says that the duck was designed to be “soft, friendly, and suitable for all ages.” It’s clear that the artist met his goal from the sheer number of families, couples, and friends that came out to enjoy the view. The bridge was swarming with people, everyone clamoring for a look and a picture of the duck. The more daring observers climbed the bridge itself, standing on the barrier between road and walkway to get a clear shot.
The party was the launch of the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts, which continues through Oct. 20. During the festival, the city will host the U.S. premieres of numerous theater, dance, music, and visual art displays. On Friday night, three other installations had their U.S. debut, including Kurt Hentschlager and Ulf Langheinrich’s Granular Synthesis: Model 5 and POL in the SPACE art gallery on Liberty Avenue.
Model 5 consists of a large screen curtained off, upon which four large images are projected. The images shift and move in time to a rhythmic bass, creating a multisensory experience. Viewers sit down and take in the experience, soaking in the physical vibrations from the bass rhythms as the pictures shift and change.
But as soon as viewers become comfortable with the rhythm, the mood, and the images themselves, these details suddenly shift to something new. Sophomore English major Sayre Olson said she was “never fully satisfied” with the piece because it felt as if “the art was always one step ahead of you.”
Another installation that examines perception is Francis Crisafio’s HOLDUP in the HOOD in the 707 Penn Gallery. The photographs incorporate drawings and recycled materials such as magazines in an exploration of self-perception, race, gender, and identity, especially in pop culture.
Crisafio, who studied printmaking and painting at Carnegie Mellon, said in his artist’s statement that this installation was created out of a “larger body of work that documents an after-school, collaborative arts curriculum rooted in self-portraiture.”
“It was a very high concept, but not so weird that I didn’t get it,” sophomore chemistry and English double major Sophie Zucker said, “although it was hard to pinpoint one message.”
The most striking images show people holding magazine covers in front of their faces. The covers feature the face of a model and obscure all of the distinctive features of the subjects except their eyes, replacing them with an example of societal standards of beauty. This pattern creates an interesting juxtaposition between societal standards and natural beauty, causing the viewer to examine where beauty truly lies.
This quarter’s crawl also featured a number of Pittsburgh-specific explorations, most notably the PNC Legacy Project at 600 Liberty Ave. This exhibit has been open for about a year and is a permanent display of the rich history of Pittsburgh through visual images and oral histories.
Visitors are able to compare and contrast images of the city in the past and present through interactive touch screen displays, featuring notable locations such as the North Shore. The exhibit also showcases an interactive wall projection of the city skyline in 1951. As you walk toward the wall, the projector senses your presence, and the image shifts to a 2013 skyline in the space where your shadow would normally be.
Just to the right of that piece, small boxes are suspended from the ceiling, each containing a miniature speaker. Each box features a short oral history of Pittsburgh by notable residents — such as founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers Art Rooney — accessible by pressing a button and holding the speaker up to your ear. The exhibit is an interesting look back on the city’s history in the midst of such modern art in the district.
Other features of the event included interactive activities that invited the attendees to become artists themselves. “The Art of Pierogie Making” at Braddock’s American Brasserie and free dance lessons and demos at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio are just two examples of the inclusive nature of the event, where the lines between art and viewer were blurred.
The mixture of function and form was also present in the kNOT Dance at Verve Wellness. Three pieces of brightly colored fabric were suspended from the ceiling, creating swings on which dancers performed.
The dancers showcased their skills as they climbed, swung, and hung from the fabric, bringing to mind acrobats in a circus. The graceful beauty of their movements contrasted with the industrial setting of what appeared to be a transformed storage loft, creating a juxtaposition that perfectly represents the city of Pittsburgh and its history.
Down the street was the most functional art of the night: Art Car Round Up, a showcase of four highly decorated cars at 8th Street and Penn Avenue. Greg Phelps’s “That Car #3” is a Nissan Versa covered in small round mirrors, stones, corks, and bumper stickers. Upon closer inspection, the car’s immediate aesthetic beauty becomes distorted by the various doll pieces placed on the car. Arms, legs, and a few heads can be seen amidst the shiny pieces that dominate the display.
According to Phelps, this is the only car he owns, and he drives it every day, calling himself “the lazy man’s good Samaritan”: All he has to do is drive around and people are pointing and smiling, creating conversations and connections. “That Car #3” is Phelps’s third art car, and his art car project has progressed over two years. As for what motivates his process, Phelps simply says that it’s fun.
The Gallery Crawl can be overwhelming with so many sights and sounds fighting for dominance, but even a cursory exploration reveals hidden art and culture. Zucker said that the experience gave her a chance to “explore Pittsburgh as a city in its own right and as a cultural center.”
“[I’ve] never been downtown when it was alive,” she said.
The event gives Pittsburgh the chance to come together to explore its art scene and get a glimpse of the city it is becoming. This fall’s Gallery Crawl explored perception and sense, compared history and the present, and mingled mature themes with childhood memories.
Most of the exhibits featured on Friday night are just beginning, so even if you missed the event, you can still experience the art. A complete list of exhibitions is available on the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust website, along with information about the Festival of Firsts.