Pillbox

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/

The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, a bus ride away from campus, is one of the homes of the flourishing arts culture in Pittsburgh. Arts education, exhibition space, residencies, and arts advocacy are the main focus of this organization, making it a useful resource for artists in the area. On Friday, the Center hosted an opening of the 2017 Solo and Collaborative exhibitions. In a large, canary yellow house, the space is inviting and well lit, offering rooms to wander through in the beautiful house. This particular show featured nine different exhibitions, with a total of thirteen Pittsburgh-based artists including Nikki Brugnoli, Jiyon Hong, Laurel Wilcox, and Carnegie Mellon professor of art Devan Shimoyama.

Walking the space is certainly an interesting experience, as the architectural features of the house make the space feel vastly different from what you expect from a traditional gallery. Each exhibition space feels more contained and the flow from exhibition to exhibition feels more casual, allowing viewers to explore the space more freely. In a sampler sort of format, the show gives a sense of the themes that run through the Pittsburgh art scene. These works covered a variety of topics, dealing with memory, race, and narrative. This show is defined by a myriad of interesting and expertly contrasted textures, colors, and media. Hong’s delicate wire map of Pittsburgh and the contrast of clay, wood, and rope in Interdependent by Jonathan Shwartz and Angela Biederman are notable examples. The diversity of the materiality and subject matter in this show was exciting and full of potential, and it makes walking through such a large group exhibition more engaging.

In a show like this, where there are so many different exhibitions and no grounding theme, good curation is crucial. Part of our job as viewers is trying to untangle the intention of the artist and the context of the work, but the curators must also guide us along. Although a lot of art is intended to stand alone and be easily understood, all art requires a basis of knowledge to understand. In shows like this where there is no theme, the artists’ background are not well known, and the diversity of work is collected in an intimate space, the curation of individual exhibitions requires more thought. Each artist and collaborative team approached the explanation of their work differently, bringing us to the question of how one effectively use an artist statement.

The artist statement is presented to give the viewer context and hints at where to look to decipher meaning in work. There is a necessary balance between giving enough information for the audience to connect with with the work, but leaving enough out for the audience to be motivated to explore and ask questions. At times, the artist statements and curation in these exhibitions made it challenging to connect with the work. Ambiguity in art is beautiful and important, but vague art jargon and broad concepts without specificity to the work will lessen the viewer’s ability to be invested. Each of the exhibitions were clearly working toward interesting ideas and had expert command over medium, but connecting with the work was challenging because some of the artist statements were poorly considered. Art needs to reach both experts and non-experts, and without either clear cues in the work or well crafted curation this cannot happen.

One exhibition that successfully considered the art and presentation was Oblivion by Misty Morrison. Walking through a narrow hallway to reach a series of large-scale paintings with haunting portraits and domestic scenes, the viewer is transported into the world Morrison creates. Her work has an undeniably cinematic quality, the lighting and compositions are almost like stills from a film noir movie. The portraits are intimate, but there is also sense of anxious anticipation. The figures are larger than life, and the language they use is familiar enough that the initial connection the viewer makes with the work is immediate and effortless. This gives space to explore the overall narrative, to connect with the characters and bring your own stories to the setup. Thus, with enough information present in the paintings, the lack of artist statement worked. I am excited to see more of her work, as being in the space made me crave more of these styles of narrative to explore and peel apart.

The work of Carnegie Mellon professor Shimoyama and Danny Ferrell in He’s American contrast in many ways with the work of Morrison as they tackle portraiture and curation differently. Shimoyama and Ferrell are both faculty here at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art, and their expertise in curation and painting is clear. The natural flow of the viewer through the series of paintings and sculptural installations could have you land at the artist statement last. The installations and the quality of the paintings are opulent and beautiful, the vivid colors and the bejeweled installations add to the allusions to religious paintings. The presence of gradients and the graphic colors place these works, though surreal and magical, specifically in our time.

Their collaboration is seamless, the art plays off of each other and explores the lived experiences of race and queerness with nuance and softness. In their short artist statement they write about the American dream, the invisibility of intimacy and vulnerability in the gay male experience. Their work talks about America and luxury, and who this dream is for — a topic which is relevant more than ever in this political environment. In this case, the artist statement is important but, a testament to their work, it does not make or break the exhibition. Rather, the artist statement adds depth to the exploration of the art. It allows the viewer to step into the shoes of the characters the artist paint, and see American society through the eyes of those whose identities have been reduced to political props.

With the recent defunding of the National Education Association and the continuing reduction in funding for arts education, artist and curators have to be especially mindful of the role art is taking in society. Going to a show with a group of such inspiring and talented artist and focusing on the idea of artist statements may be nit picky. But care and attention paid to contextualizing work makes art impactful. As an arts columnist, I have the incredible opportunity to talk to artists about their intentions for their work — their passion for their subject matter and practice is contagious, and it makes it easy to match their investment in their work. The artist statement is for those who don’t get to have that conversation. It is the artist’s direct communication with the audience and should not be taken for granted. This show was beautiful, diverse, and exciting in many ways. It displays incredible expertise and it is exciting to see what local artist are pursuing. But go in with the benefit of doubt, and leave yourself open to the questions that the art will undoubtedly pose for better or for worse.