New art at Mattress Factory

*Word Bubble* by John Pena (credit: Sid Bhadauria/) *Word Bubble* by John Pena (credit: Sid Bhadauria/) *Diaspora* by Ryder Henry (credit: Sid Bhadauria/) *Diaspora* by Ryder Henry (credit: Sid Bhadauria/)

Five artists, all Pittsburgh based, unveiled installations at the Mattress Factory on Friday night at an opening reception for the museum’s ongoing Artists in Residence exhibit. Diaspora by Ryder Henry, damn everything but the circus by Benjamin Sota, Word Balloons by John Peña, and Is Always, What Does It Mean?, Again and Again. by Danny Bracken will all be on display in the main Mattress Factory gallery, with Body Memory Architecture by Kathleen Montgomery on display at the museum’s off-site gallery through May 31, 2015.

There are four installations in the main gallery, each filling an entire room.

Diaspora, by Ryder Henry, is an immensely detailed futuristic city made from cardboard boxes. The city is at once both familiar and alien. Rather than opting for a concrete jungle, Henry creates a grassy suburbia, punctuated by foreign objects, black in color with asymmetric outlines and visually challenging structures. Elements of both dystopian and idealistic science fiction are present. Red colored retro-futuristic rockets and circular skyscrapers pulled out from a Jetsons cartoon reside less than a block away from modern housing developments and heavy industrial machines, which look more like the burned out carcasses of spaceships than a traditional factory. Outside the city are floating islands that represent isolated memories from the creator’s life. From a Chinese restaurant to a school and more, Henry seems devoted to inciting feelings of nostalgia and personal recognition from viewers.

There’s also a larger grid of isolated apartment buildings, each on a small platform rising up from the ground. The isolated buildings are spread across an entire room, giving the viewer a sense of scale and isolation. The manner in which Henry experiments with space was one of my favorite sensations in the museum.

There exists yet another part of the exhibit, the wildest yet, composed of fantastical rounded circular starships adorned with Arabic symbols and incisions taken straight from a mosque. Afro-futurism is a relatively well-known and interesting art form, but this may be the first time I’ve seen an attempt at Arabic futurism pulled off. The exhibit ends with a model of the starship Enterprise, again adorned with Arabic patterns and surrounded by a web of magazine clippings from Henry’s life, once more demonstrating his willingness to straddle the boundaries between fantastical abstraction and deeply personal expression.

In contrast, Benjamin Sota’s damn everything but the circus, was unfortunately not as engaging. The cleverly-placed turnstile at the installation’s entrance into a room-sized red tent is exciting, but what awaits inside is a rather uninspired simulation of a circus. The first noticeable thing about the tent is the oddly chosen jazz music (does circus music often feature live saxophone?) and shifting lighting. It fluctuates between “daytime” (overly red-orange glow) to bluish nightclub lighting. Finally, the physical exhibits — a trapeze, a wire, and a strongman’s ball — were very uninspired. A little more visual challenge and abstraction could have been used here.

Word Balloons by John Peña fared a little better. The exhibit consisted of two huge comic word balloons and translates a pop culture icon from a 2-D to a 3-D medium. However, the word balloons themselves distract from the other aspects of the exhibit. The smaller balloon says “Sometimes I just don’t know how to feel in the world”, while the larger one reads “So I talk and talk and work to fill the emptiness.” While the concept of literally using a physical manifestation of speech to fill “emptiness” is an interesting use of the size of the balloons, I found myself to be rather mesmerized by the smooth curves and dimensionality of the speech balloon itself. Instead of feeling the awkwardness of what Pena was trying to convey, I actually found myself being inexplicably calmed by the shape and smoothness of the speech bubble.

Finally, Danny Bracken’s exhibit: Is Always, What Does it Mean?, Again and Again. is actually three different components in one room, tied together by a common atmosphere. This exhibit is the best of the bunch. The light in the room is completely dimmed, save for spotlights illuminating each component. Bracken also uses music effectively to create a serene and calming environment. In seeking to make his viewer contemplate the essence of nature and man-made simulation, Bracken is successful. In the first third of the room, Bracken has two pods, one of actual dirt and grass, and a separate one consisting of a digital projection of dirt and grass on a curved surface. Using the music as an emotional baseline of sorts, Bracken seems to ask whether the projection of grass and dirt can match the emotional response of the real thing. The next component reinforces this idea, a screen showing shifting, rounded, cool blue shapes. Looking at the screen, and the blue patterns moving across it coupled with the ambient music, it is easy to recreate the emotional response from the natural scene it emulates. The final component is a man-made rainbow, a stream of water droplets being sprayed from the ceiling and creating a hoop-shaped double rainbow. More self-contained than a natural rainbow, the final component seems to suggest that simulated, digital art can indeed be more impressive than the real thing.

In an age where everything is shared and cheaply consumed by anyone with a smartphone, art is becoming more of a people’s medium. If this is where art appreciation is going, I’ll be the first one to ditch my starched suit for a pair of worn jeans and a Where’s Waldo? sweatshirt.