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Artists in residence bring the earnest angst to the Mattress Factory

The pieces are linked by a sense of whimsy mixed with melancholy

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Small town: Ryder Henry's Diaspora
  • Photo courtesy of the Mattress Factory
  • Small town: Ryder Henry's "Diaspora" (detail)

The Mattress Factory's leg of the Pittsburgh Biennial, Artists in Residence, includes five distinct installations, by Pittsburgh-based artists Danny Bracken, Ryder Henry, Kathleen Montgomery, John Peña and Ben Sota.

While the exhibition has no specific theme, there are noticeable differences between the four installations at the Mattress Factory's main building and the one in the museum's annex, on Monterey Street. The pieces at the main building are linked by a sense of whimsy mixed with melancholy. They feel like they fit together in a generational cohort. Incorporating aspects like interactivity, technology, activism, mundanity and sci-fi fantasy, the pieces combine to present an exuberant and accessible vibe. They are not frivolous or upbeat, but rather convey a thoughtful and earnest angst. Not resigned, but bemused and bewildered by the beauty and pain of life itself.

Take, for instance, Peña's thought bubbles. Though derived from cartoons, these are not the two-dimensional variety that encase dialogue or thoughts attributed to characters in a comic cell. Instead they are three-dimensional — crafted from plaster and extruded foam, bulky and hefty both physically and psychically. On one is written: "So I talk and talk and work to try and fill the emptiness." Addressing our basic instinct to reach out to other humans, the statement conjures thoughts about the use and overuse of language to counteract our befuddlement and loneliness. By using the cartoon bubble, Peña also seems to make reference to texting and the now ubiquitous bubble icon.

Peña's other sculpture, while smaller, carries an equally forlorn message: "Sometimes I just don't know how to be in the world." Peña's sculptures are bolstered by a jumble of wooden 2-by-4's, a basic element of construction. The lumber both buttresses and anchors the balloons. In his artist statement, Peña says: "When manifested in the physical world ... words can be so light and yet so heavy that they need to be braced in order to remain in the world."

It is not insignificant that Peña uses a tool originally born of print media but later adapted to 21st-century technology. Cartoon zines and graphic novels have gained renewed interest as part of a DIY and retro resurgence that is similarly employed by the other artists in the main space.

Sota's "Damn everything but the circus" is an extension of his work as founder and artistic director of the Zany Umbrella Circus, which he describes as a "socially conscious street theater/circus company that exists to strengthen communities through education and folk artistry." Visitors enter Sota's installation through a turnstile and a circus-tent-type entrance underneath an old-timey hand-lettered banner that reads "Extra Ordinary Experiences Inside!" You have the option of donning a handmade mask before entering. Once inside, you can try your hand at a variety of circus skills using implements such as a performance wheel, a balancing ball, a clown bike and a tightrope. Somber circus music accompanied by strings of lights that slowly flash on and off set a mood that is definitively more Old World traveling carnival than Cirque du Soleil.

Like Sota and Peña, Henry is clearly enamored of handcraft. His "Diaspora" is a fantastical miniature megacity with little satellite islands supporting their own buildings floating around it. Henry calls it a "transition zone between the earthbound city and outer-space habitation." He has placed glowing miniature towers on poles nearby that represent a "suburban expanse" that then transitions to the cosmos, where a variety of spaceships as "self-contained biospheres" dangle. Henry's city, while static, is so intricate that it begs comparison to Chris Burden's kinetic sculpture "Metropolis II," just without the frenetic motion.

In the basement of the main building are works by Bracken. While he uses the most technology, he still captures the same sense of wonderment that imbues the other installations. Using natural components like grass, stone and water, he explores the boundaries of experience. The most successful pieces here are "Is Always," a video projection that uses a circle of real grass on one side and a circular video projection of a grass lawn on the other, and "What Does it Mean?," a rainbow recreated indoors with light and water that takes its title from a viral YouTube video of a double rainbow captured by an ecstatic Yosemitebear Vasquez.

Meanwhile, Montgomery's "Body Memory Architecture" fills the house on Monterey Street with handmade objects, works on paper, words and stencils. It is far more enigmatic and rarefied than the other four installations and has a definite feminist aesthetic that, while soulful, feels derivative of artists like Eva Hesse, Ann Hamilton and Elizabeth Newman.

Montgomery's installation feels very much like its own show. But taken as a whole, Artists in Residence captures that wistful but animated mood that comes from creative discovery.

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