It was made clear in curator Ingrid Schaffner’s introductory meet the press talk when she posed the rhetorical question to herself; is there a theme for the Carnegie International? Her emphatic response … NO.
In general the exhibition is arranged as a series of one person exhibitions which only reinforces the idea that there is not an overarching theme to this iteration. Perhaps a nod to the seemingly endless extension of post-modern pluralism or is that now post-post-modernism. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Speaking of power, the event is meant to include artists from around the world and it does fulfill this obligation, however the works and artists that were chosen fall heavily within a western centric framework for what constitutes contemporary art. The exhibition is really about the interplay of idea based art vs work that is mostly formal with an emphasis on appearance and craft. Art that would traditionally be found in a museum type setting, super-sized works that were made to fit the large scaled museum white cube spaces vs art that is more socially engaged and is rarely seen/experienced inside the traditional art institution. Whereas the former fits very neatly in its proper context, often the more socially engaged artists/collectives felt out of place, asked to make work using formulas that make sense outside of the institution but feel watered down or just plain inappropriate within the museum context.
The former works in general for artists such as Sarah Crowner and Ulrike Muller who were tasked with the challenge of staging an entrance to the exhibition and who both combine elements of minimalism with pattern and decoration in their works. Crowner’s undulating wall mounted, relief ceramic sculpture with its repetitive chevron pattern begins outside of the Scaife Gallery and then continues within as if penetrating the interior /exterior wall. Her ceramic sculpture and dyed and sewn collaged non-representational canvases create in interesting dialogue with Muller’s modestly scaled enamel on steel paintings and her large scale abstract weavings which reinforce their two dimensional flatness but also include high heels. This pairing helps to create a visually stunning gateway for the rest of the exhibition because of their ability to command the cavernous spaces of the museum so well.
Unfortunately for Rachel Rose and her gentle, meticulously crafted animation Lake Valley the space tends to subsume the work. Although set up as an installation it is essentially out in the open. Someone decided to put a carpet down to invite viewers to sit as if watching cartoons on a Saturday morning on TV but it feels nothing like a living room or an old rec room, it lacks intimacy and unfortunately the work suffers because of it. It is not large enough to compete with the space and the other work around it and really deserved a smaller contained space. Continuing through the exhibition one encounters a larger installation of figurative paintings by Londoner Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The subjects include black and brown skinned males and females lounging around posing languidly in both interior and exterior settings. The works show off a certain type of painterly virtuosity. They are handsome paintings of attractive people. And although they look good and check off the visceral and sensual boxes for engaging paintings once one gets beyond the appearance there is a void. Thinking back to the last international her work has some relation to Henry Taylor’s narrative style figurative paintings, which were a bit more raw and unpolished but they also carried an historical weight of the black experience. Unlike Yiadom-Boakye paintings, where we just get staged figures and narratives that look like they could come right out of J Crew catalogues — perhaps that it is the point.
Some of the most engaging work is found within the smaller spaces of the museum. I can’t help but feel like I am walking through a big box store when I am inside these larger Scaife galleries. There is a clinical, impersonal vastness to these spaces which often leaves me cold, with their gargantuan scaled works creating a hierarchy perhaps literally and figuratively between the dominating bully (the artwork and museum interior architectural space) and the minuscule powerless viewer. These types of spaces encourage and foster the idea of spectacle. This is why I gravitate to the Heinz Architectural Center, which houses the work of 3 artists and one collaborative pair. Here the spaces are much more intimate with lower ceilings, moodier lighting, linen colored walls and dark stained wood moldings. It feels like its own show within the larger exhibition and you have to physically open doors to enter this space. This is an excellent example of the curators pairing artists with appropriate spaces. Jessi Reaves has a room to herself and once again we have evidence of the curators’ fondness for well-crafted formally engaging work. Reaves a trained upholsterer uses this skill to her advantage by taking apart furniture and then piecing it back together in clever and engaging ways which take the form of wall mounted and free standing sculptures as well as a very large, free flowing organically shaped couch. I couldn’t help but recognize the influence of Lee Bontecou on this work. In the Feminist Responsibility Project, Beverly Semmes rebukes sexist and misogynist portrayals of women by selecting imagery from porn magazines, printing them onto canvas and then slathering paint overtop of the figures exposed bodies. Her critique includes the fashion industry as well as Semmes centralized video documents her own version of a fashion show with models wearing patterns derived from imagery from the aforementioned paintings.
In a piece certain to leave the smallest footprint but perhaps the most lasting imprint on my memory was the work of Japanese artist Yuji Agematsu which is tucked away in the diminutive Charity Randall Gallery. The work is a record of a daily ritual of collecting. Agematsu, a pack a day smoker sets out on daily walks and collects refuse that he finds along the way. He then creates tiny mixed media pieces with this collected refuse and carefully places them within the clear plastic wrappers of his cigarette packaging. He displays these pieces on twelve clear acrylic shelving units one for each month of the year (which resemble the inside of a medicine cabinet) and organizes the plastic wrappers and their contents in an ordered set of rows and seven columns in conjunction with the days of the week. The miniature time capsules of waste displayed like artifacts are nonetheless extremely fascinating and I found myself transfixed by their contents which often contained items such as: chewing gum, used q-tips, candy wrappers, hair, hair ties, half eaten dum dums, and an occasional tiny picture from a magazine or newspaper clipping including an image of John Travolta. The lighting of the work created beautifully intricate black and white shadows of the plastic packaging and its contents on the wall behind the pieces. They looked like ghostly versions of the contents, perhaps a foreshadowing of what the future holds… Death
One of the most challenging parts of the jobs of the curator is how to manage artists and artist collectives who have essentially built their careers by making work that is intentionally situated outside the confines of the gallery and museum setting. And here we are talking about the new wave of socially active artists whose work is often in opposition to the type of institution such as the Carnegie Museum, the epitome of a well-known purveyor and power broker for the construction of artistic taste and cementers of artistic legacy. This is where the hypocrisy rears its ugly head in the wink wink relationship of curator, institution and artist(s). A perfect example of this happens with the artist collective Post-Commodity. Based on their name, one can assume that they are attempting to position themselves outside of the economic infrastructure and in so doing extend the philosophy of the earthworks, conceptual and neo-conceptual movements. In the last Carnegie International, Zoe Strauss set up a temporary portrait photo studio on 8th avenue in Homestead and took free portraits of the locals. Under the auspices of egalitarianism this type of work attempts to engage with the community and make the participants feel like they are important and in the end have a place in the museum which was built by Carnegie, former owner of the former Homestead Works steel plant. This year Postcommodity takes up the mantle of socially engaged work by according to their website fostering connective shared dialogues that challenge the negative metanarratives which are destabilizing our communities. After a number of site visits to the Carrie Furnaces, formerly an integral part of the steel operation at the now closed Homestead Works, and also visits to the Hill district, once known for its vibrant jazz scene, their work on the floor of the hall of Sculpture used salvaged steel from the Carrie Furnaces site in Rankin, crushed granular glass and three sizes of coal. In addition they recruited local jazz musicians to perform improvisations in response to the piece. In both of these cases Strauss and Post-Commodity come to a designated area, Pittsburgh, with the intention of applying their models of socially engaged working methods. They spend a short amount of time there and then make work that marginally addresses the social issues of the particular place. How can this work be authentic? They are not making the work from the inside of these cultures. They are not a part of the fabric of these cultures. They have become recognized in the art world because they have made work from an embedded perspective, places they have lived and worked. But when this blueprint is used outside of their homes where they have established roots, then it becomes something else entirely – formulaic and inauthentic. In addition the work on the floor of the hall of sculpture took a massive amount of resources to gather the material and transport it all to the museum and then this will be repeated when the show closes unless of course the museum purchases the piece. Isn’t that the ultimate package of commodity and consumerism all wrapped into one?
A similar conundrum occurs with the work of Jon Rubin and Lenka Clayton who have joined forces in their installation Fruit and Other Works, again, artists known for their work outside of traditional art contexts. Here they have come up with a shrewd solution to working within the museum setting taking the 10,632 rejected titles of work that were submitted from the earliest years of the International, 1896 – 1931 and then employing local artists to paint the titles on paper during museum hours. Visitors can then take the painted title home with them as a souvenir. One of the interesting outcomes of this enterprise is the fact that the hired artists (I wonder how much they are paid?) sit there for hours on end painting these innocuous titles. It is essentially a sweat shop of sorts for these artists who work tirelessly and are expected to crank out a painting every 8 minutes or so while the owners of the means of production Clayton and Rubin are absent but get all of the recognition. It becomes a perfect metaphor for the capitalist model and perhaps a nod to the namesake of the museum – wink, wink.
Having lived here for over 30 years, I have seen many of these Internationals. When I was young, I often dismissed them as just part of the bourgeois enterprise. As I matured, at times, I was impressed and or in awe of some of the work that I saw at these exhibitions and was thankful to be able to see art that was considered to be important and had been canonized by the international art world. As of today, I am no longer enamored with the art itself. There is so much art in the world to weed through and the moments of nirvana have diminished greatly. Now, when considering the Carnegie international I examine it more critically by trying to understand what this type of exhibition really means to the city of Pittsburgh and the top-down art world which in general is still dominated by the major art centers. What is most relevant to me is to underscore what is behind the machinations of an art world trying to maintain itself, sustain its relevancy and preserve and build on its relative worth in the global economy. Of course dealers, auction houses, museums, and collectors around the world have a vested interest in making sure that we believe the hype. In the end I look at this exhibition through the eyes of a mature artist and someone who has established Pittsburgh roots.
It really has become just another exhibition.
Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019 pp27-29