- Meat up: Tamara Kostianovsky's "Bound." Photo by Sol Aramendi.
In a nutshell, the Society for Contemporary Craft is hard to put in a nutshell. It's a school, it's an art gallery and it's a store. You can buy earrings, walk around the exhibits or sculpt your own metal-clay necklace. The gallery is spacious and well lit, the staff are warm and welcoming. You could say that the SCC is a lot like Pittsburgh Filmmakers: smart, busy, diverse in scope -- and not nearly enough people seem to know about it.
Which is why every Pittsburgher should take a field trip there. The Society's artists go to great lengths to redefine what crafting actually is -- most recently, in Beyond Shared Language: Contemporary Art and the Latin American Experience. The only "crafty" part of this exhibit is its raw materials, mostly textiles. Otherwise, Beyond Shared Language is a punchy, sardonic examination of art and culture, as audacious as any exhibit at The Warhol.
Venezuela-born Pedro Cruz-Castro makes three different animals out of sections of leather: "Goat" is a portrait of a goat, "Horse" of a horse, "Pig" of a pig. But the animals are incomplete: Each is constructed from three leather pieces that don't quite connect, as if each had been chopped into sections. It's an eerie complement to "Bound," an installation by Tamara Kostianovsky, who grew up in Argentina. In this three-dimensional sculpture of a slaughtered cow, ribs hang from meat hooks; a gutted abdomen lies on a metal dolly. The conceit is that this grisly mess is quilted from cloth -- old curtains and clothes -- so that each chunk of raw beef is like a giant plush toy. In Cruz-Castro's and Kostianovsky's blatant fabrications, we are paradoxically reminded that animals are real, that meat and leather have bloody origins.
Equally jarring is Elia Alba's sculpture series, "If I Were A ..." Hanging on a wall are three human bodies constructed from muslin, each piece of fabric bearing the photocopy of a body part. Alba combines anatomical details from people of different races, so that each body is a conglomerate of diverse features. But from a distance, the sculptures resemble lynched cadavers, stripped and skinned. Entering a room of dissected pigs, cows and humans can make one queasy, but remember: These materials can all be found at Jo-Ann Fabrics.
The exhibit also boasts some avant-garde jewelry and a real, if platinum-covered, plantain. But the most imaginative piece is "Ana & Maria," a sculpture of two posing women by Alejandro Aguilera. The life-size figures are made of wood, metal, graphite, corn, vanilla, beans, anise and yellow-root. In place of hearts, their chests frame eerie photographs. The sculptures are creepy and surreal, like symbolic effigies built for the Day of the Dead.
Meanwhile, don't miss the Society's other exhibit: The United States of America: Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Crappiness, an installation by artist and environmentalist Matt Eskuche. At first, USA looks like a messy after-work party that nobody cleaned up: There are Coke bottles, McDonald's trash, Chinese take-out boxes and drained bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, all spread out on an island counter. It's as if the SCC staff decided to order junk food, and each member went to a different fast-food restaurant.
But upon closer inspection, each piece of "garbage" is really a precise replica. The plastic Frappuccino cup is made of hand-blown glass, as is the Coca-Cola bottle. The box of Hostess Donuts is cut and folded out of ordinary cardboard, and the logo and nutritional facts have been inscribed by hand, using markers and pen. Even the ice cubes in the martini tumbler are molded from glass. Eskuche manages to indict waste, show off his painstaking labor and display a sense of humor, all at once. And the trashy installation will grow, piece by piece, through August, as Eskuche produces more precious litter. (Each item sells for $100.)
The Society is playing with form and function, making crafts craftier. It's not just admirable; it might be some of the highest art in town.
Beyond Shared Language and The United States of America continue through Aug. 29. Society for Contemporary Craft, 2100 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-261-7003 or www.contemporarycraft.org