Craig McPherson, known for his realist portrayals of the urban landscape, has exhibited widely during his illustrious career, including impressive murals for corporate clients. For instance, one five-year project for the AMEX headquarters, in Lower Manhattan, is themed on harbor cities of the world. It's 11 feet high by 318 feet long, and features a depiction of Manhattan and the Twin Towers. Despite its location adjacent to Ground Zero, the mural remained unscathed by the attacks.
Steel: Pittsburgh Drawings by Craig McPherson, at the Frick Art Museum, is an exhibition of more than 30 works, which the Frick considers a contribution to Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary. With its dramatic view of this city's industrial heritage, the show echoes McPherson's penchant for realism on a grand scale.
McPherson (a Kansan who has lived in New York for 30 years) first visited Pittsburgh 20 years ago. He was struck by the extraordinary views and has returned once or twice a year since. The exhibition includes his existing Pittsburgh-related works and new works made expressly for this exhibition in graphite and pastel, including an expansive 66-by-120-inch pastel on linen titled "E.T." Many of the images feature the Edgar Thompson Plant and Clairton Works, institutions with which museum namesake Henry Clay Frick was involved.
"Sacred Monster comes to mind," says McPherson of the mills, in an interview in the exhibition catalogue. "[I]t applies to these magnificent feats of engineering and to the larger than life individuals who created and ran them, as well as the diabolic aspects of the endeavor. ... There is something mythic in scale and atmosphere about it all."
Included among McPherson's drawings and paintings are mezzotints, products of a painstaking and somewhat antiquated printmaking technique: A copper plate is evenly inscribed with tiny burrs that hold the ink and allow the printing of rich, black areas, while details are created by scraping and burnishing portions of the metal plate.
McPherson's prints are often then worked with pastel. In "Oven #1" (1998), for example, the velvety black areas of the mezzotint are supplemented with exquisite minutiae in pastel: Cracks and textures on the exterior of the oven are contrasted with a fiery red glow from inside. The image is almost abstracted; such works display McPherson's impeccable technique to full advantage.
In "Strip Mine and Coal Piles," both large-scale pastels on mezzotint grounds (33-by-54½-inches), the expansive and eerily barren landscapes, combined with McPherson's unique bird's-eye view, result in works that are more poetic, and quieter, than some of his more straightforward depictions. Nonetheless, the oil-on-paper "Clairton," which is a more predictable view of the mill showing coal heaps in the foreground and a billowing conglomeration of smoke stacks and pipes behind, manages to simply and directly illustrate what McPherson describes as "a wealth of images for someone with a fondness for gritty, industrial scenes ... I've barely scratched the surface."
Steel: Pittsburgh Drawings by Craig McPherson continues through June 8. Frick Art Museum, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. 412-471-5605 or www.TheFrickPittsburgh.org