Category Archives: Criticism

Mad Order

Gallery doodle I made of Saul’s Mr. Welfare.


My thoughts on Ordinary Madness at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

The title of the CMA’s new exhibition is intriguing.  When I heard that the show was being selected from CMA’s permanent collection, I wondered what surprises might be revealed.  In the current economic climate, many museums have resorted to rounding out their exhibition seasons with shows of works from their permanent collections.  Some museums have mixed it up by handing artists the curatorial keys to the city.  Some stick with standard themes like “works on paper” or “video art.”  In Ordinary Madness, I was expecting interesting twists, both subtle and grandiose.  What I discovered was a pretty conservative display of works that range from spectacular to snooze inducing.

At first walk through, the show seems to offer an interesting mix of contemporary work. I believe that many of the works represent specific innovations and should be on display ALL OF THE TIME.  In his exhibition essay, curator Dan Byers organizes works into groups based on theoretical approaches. (Altering the familiar, junk assemblage, historical commentary, etc.) For me, these groupings were not clearly evident.  I explored the show thinking about each piece in relation to the show title and made my own connections.  A lot of time and labor was obviously put into curation.  I see the efforts as heavily educational rather than aesthetic.  The green screen-printed wall labels (in typewriter font) are unique, but they distract from the work.  I also felt like some of the wall explanations are going a bit far in feeding opinions to the viewer.  Isn’t visiting the museum supposed to be a subjective experience?

One of my favorite pieces is Robert Gober’s untitled newspaper piece.  It appears to be a slightly altered printing of a newspaper page containing a multitude of equally strange stories.  One article pretentiously announces the marriage of a well-to-do New York diamond buyer.  An adjacent article describes the horrors of a girl who has been locked for years in a dirty closet.  The piece serves as a reminder of the odd juxtapositions that are so common, but barely noticed in our daily lives.  The other Gober in the show is the drain piece.  The fact that this piece has been moved repeatedly throughout the museum is killing me.  The piece was a perfect site-specific work.  It shouldn’t be tossed around like a painting.  It should live somewhere where its “realness” can play with the minds of museum visitors.  It shouldn’t have a big label next to it.  The beauty of the piece is that everything in proximity is forced to relate to it.  It should be a familiar museum landmark to some, and a piece of museum plumbing to others.

Rarely seen in the galleries, Peter Saul’s Mr. Welfare (1969) is another gem in the collection. I get the impression that the piece has been censored from permanent display because of its perverse content.  The piece is so jarring that it needs a ton of breathing room.  At one time I think it lived where the Warhol phone piece currently resides.  Perhaps they should put it back and display the phone in the lobby.

Other high points of the show are pioneering video art pieces including works by Peter Campus, Lynda Benglis and Vito Acconci.  Viewed today, the artists in these raw and distorted pieces appear as inhabitants of a distant planet.  I was also excited to see collage works by John Bock, and sculpture by Mike Kelley.

All in all, I would have preferred fewer pieces and a more thoughtful arrangement in Ordinary Madness.  The sound overlap from three of the video pieces (At the back end of the show) made it nearly impossible to focus on the Oursler piece.  Anne Chu’s Nine Hellish Spirits: No. 2 is awkwardly crowded against a wall.  In a public venue I understand that work must be displayed in a manner that prevents damage and ensures a safe environment for visitors.  As a critic, I want to see the work displayed in the best way possible.  Can we have it both ways?

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Queloides at Mattress Factory

Review of Queloides, Part 1

It’s exciting to see a new Cuban show at the MF, especially one that explores race and racism.  Cuba is a country with a complex set of issues.  Cuban Americans that I have spoken to have been reluctant to talk about their experiences.  In a land where family members are often torn apart by politics, I can’t imagine the magnitude of racism on the island.  My immediate thoughts before visiting the show revolved around the opportunity the MF has with this exhibition to address race and racism in their neighborhood.  Having lived on the North Side of Pittsburgh for a couple years, I saw firsthand the tensions caused by the rapid gentrification of the community.

The exhibition spans both of the museum buildings including some work outside.  My favorite two pieces are the car (Armando Mariño) in the parking lot* – a near mint condition antique Plymouth with ceramic legs of twelve or so Afro-Cubans holding up, and potentially powering the car – and the shrine in the basement of the main building.  The later, a shrine of roughly sixty statues of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of Cuba stand in a variety that ranges from cheap knickknack to finely crafted folk art.  The statues have an iconography specific to Cuban legend, (Involving two men and a slave boy finding the original Virgin statue while in a boat at sea.)  Around an island-like platform supporting the sculptures, A quote from nineteenth century Cuban hero José Martí reads, “Either the Republic is based upon the full character of each and every one of its sons and daughters (….) or the republic is not worth a teardrop from our women or a single drop of blood by our brave fighters.” Martí fought for Cuban independence from Spain.  I believe his quote in the context of the installation alludes to a national solidarity perpetuated by the belief in a power greater than the ruling regime.  The installation, by Meira Marrero and José Toirac, demands reverence as it perfectly occupies the grotto-like basement of the building.

Upstairs, the next piece that I encountered is Alexis Esquivel’s Automatic Vehicle to Collect Religious Offerings.  I was expecting a bit more edge in the show, not whimsical sarcasm, so I didn’t care for this one.  It was supposed to be an interactive piece, allowing the visitor to operate a remote controlled model street sweeper of sorts.  (Or perhaps its dysfunction is part of the commentary.)  Esquivel’s strength is in painting.  Several large works comment on the “whiteness” of American politics as well as the supremacy of America in the Western Hemisphere. His content ranges from obvious to mysteriously symbolic.  His style is a collage of political and personal imagery.

The work of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons reminds me of the Cuban art that I have seen, especially the work of Tania Bruguera.  (Who does some amazing work and is strangely accepted by the Castro regime.) Like Bruguera, Capos-Pons utilizes symbolic elements of the earth (sugar blocks) to create rich, sensory experiences.  The piece, two walls of raw sugar bricks narrowing with a pile of refined sugar at the end, immediately reads as feminist art. An accompanying video features communication between a white woman and a black woman.  I wasn’t too interested in this piece, but the thought of licking the sugar blocks when nobody was looking was tempting.

I spent a lot of time looking at the mural sized painting of Douglas Pérez.  I wasn’t that excited about it at first, but it grew on me.  Pérez has his own style.  He layers allegorical imagery, arranging characters in a cycle of power and oppression.  The piece addresses poverty, the struggle of the worker, corporate influence, greed and death in a grotesque, highly detailed manner.  (Bosch meets Darger) A skeletal snake creature devours a giant centipede. (Or vice versa)  Each creature is made up of people involved in the struggle.  The work is titled, Ecosistema.

There is a lot to see – and a lot to write about – at Queloides.  I’ll continue this review another day.  It’s too nice outside.  I want to take pictures of Halloween zombies on Pittsburgh front porches.

*I just found out from MF staff that the title of the car piece by Armando Mariño is Raft.  The car was procured by the museum for the installation and restored from a “chipped grey matte finish.”  (This is good example of how dedicated the museum is to obtaining the materials that resident artists need for installations.)

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Commentary: WHATEVER IT TAKES at CMU Miller Gallery

Art Show for Rubberneckers

While I was at grad school, one of the most refreshing aspects of being away was the relief from Steelers Mania.  People in other cities actually have better things to do than to be emotionally wrapped up in football for months on end.  Sure, there are tons of football fanatics in New York, but their lives don’t revolve around the game.  Games, for them, are momentary getaways from the bustle of life.  They are not the axes of all human activity.

Bizarre Steelers displays and Steelers fashion is everywhere in Pittsburgh.  You can’t avoid it.  When I found out that it had invaded the Miller Gallery at CMU, I felt like a football fan on the Monday after a big loss.  For the most part, I’m really interested in art that strays far from the usual gallery experience.  I’m not sure if I can call the CMU project art, but I decided to give it a chance.

If you are visiting the gallery to catch a glimpse of the weird obsessions and rituals of Pittsburgh fans, then you will get a healthy dose.  A stadium model built around an old vibrating electronic football game brought back childhood memories.  (It’s mind-boggling to think of the gaming evolution from the buzzing electronic football to today’s life-like video games.  What will fans be playing in ten years?)  A plethora of Steelers tattoos offer flesh and blood proof of fanaticism.  A shrine-like memorabilia room highlights the cult-like practices of extreme followers.

The conceptual thread that ties the show together is the view of Steelers Nation as a sociological force, a union of fans that stretches to the far reaches of the earth.  Wall size charts document the proliferation of Steelers bars throughout the world.  In CMU high-tech style, a live video feed connects the gallery to a Steelers bar in Rome, Italy.  I looked into the camera, and several male bar patrons appeared disappointed.  I think they were hoping to chat with a female visitor.

The most engaging part of the show for me is the Immaculate Reception re-enactment piece.  A gallery attendant coached me on the play.  I ran through the gallery and caught a ball that he tossed.  My play was recorded on video and will be spliced into the actual television footage of Franco’s famous play.  Why, I’m not sure.

Overall, the experience was an amusing one.  I gave it low marks for art value, but credit for bringing the greater community in. Aside from their MFA exhibitions, The Miller hasn’t engaged the community this much since perhaps the Comic Release show of 2003.

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