Carnegie International, Borat voice, and the quest for the perfect painting | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Carnegie International, Borat voice, and the quest for the perfect painting

click to enlarge PHOTO: SHAWN COOKE
Photo: Shawn Cooke
Pet names for partners evolve from unlikely places. For me and my girlfriend, it was Borat.

I’ve ridden the Borat voice wave harder than most, as it’s digressed from cultural phenomenon to the point where even the unlikely meme resurgence has grown a bit stale. I waited some time after meeting my girlfriend to test it out, but it was not very long. Somehow she kept me around and it became a central part of our relationship, as "mah wiiiife" strayed further from canon into things like "my waive" (pronounced: wy-ve.) Everyone loves it.

This isn’t really about the seminal 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, me, or mah waive — this is about the Carnegie International’s ongoing exhibit, Fruit and Other Things, in which artists make hand-lettered text paintings of rejected artwork titles from Internationals past.


Every day, one or two artists paint roughly 30 of these titles, progressing in alphabetical order down their list of thousands of artworks. After completing each one, they walk them over to the wall to dry, replacing a text painting that’s likely been hanging for hours. This one is then moved over to a wooden display desk, where guests can claim the paintings free of charge.

On a Saturday in November, my girlfriend and I activated our joint membership to the museums and made the trip to Carnegie Museum of Art. When we arrived, they were busting out many copies of “Evening,” a fine word to hang on your wall. I searched the catalogue of 10,632 rejected titles of and among the morass of “Flower”s and “Portrait”s — easily two of the most common titles to be rejected — was "My Wife." It had to be mine.

And so began near-weekly visits to the museum in sweatpants and a baseball cap, less the look of an Art Appreciator and more of a devious man who recently learned to floss and shouts VEHY NICE when Terry Bradshaw pulls off a deer-shaped gas mask on primetime television. The rhythms of the exhibit were hard to predict, since the artists on staff and their rate of paint varied by day.

Some days, the painters would produce up to 40 works, and some closer to half that mark. I gathered what intel I could without making my mission too obvious, worrying that my prodding would lead to them to ask me which painting I was clamoring for. Then again, it also might have been a shameful nightmare, potentially defacing this serious exhibition and resulting in the immediate termination of my and mah waive’s membership. They would hang a photo behind the counter in case I ever returned, identifying me as the “My Wife guy.”


So I continued on this journey cloak-and-dagger, at one point calling the museum to ask how far in the alphabet the exhibit had reached. The phone guy was confused but nonetheless walked over to the exhibit and reported back: “H.” Many letters off, but not too far. Based on the pamphlet I’d saved in my car which listed every painting in order, we'd reach "My W-" anywhere between the end of December and March as far as I was concerned.

The weeks between holidays were filled with other travel, basically giving me one final week before Christmas to feel things out. When I arrived, the exhibit had reached “Mills at Sharpsburg,” Jesus. This spiraled into more normal territory, as I turned this pamphlet into a milder rendition of the Charlie Day/Pepe Silvia whiteboard (see below).
After going home for the holidays and many mah waives later, we returned back around Dec. 28 or so. If my calculations were correct, we’d be right in the realm of being able to walk into the museum and camp out for several hours until close, had they opened the day with “My Garden” or something. Reader: they were not. When we were joined by friends from out of town, the lovely artists had already reached the "Mountains." With New Year’s closures, I figured I could arrive on January 2 and get the thing.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen, besides several fantasies wherein I wave past the front desk, since they’ve recognized me from my commitment to the arts, into the room beyond the gift shop to see it just sitting there, a few spots over from vacancy on the wall (this was how each new text painting would be handed out to guests — rotating in line around the room.) After passing on My Son Eugene, which is honestly still worthy, and some My Studio Windows, the prize would be mine. Instead I was confronted by a piece of art Ben Affleck might want to embroil as a tramp stamp: New England. The dream was over.

Though maybe it wasn’t? After getting home to the gifts I’d accrued this year from people who are too close to the brain deterioration, it seemed a little less important. Mah waive gave me The Wife, source material for The Wife, Glenn Close’s potentially Oscar-winning movie that I watched on a plane last month; our dear friend drew me a framed “my waive” artwork that started as a backup plan but also may have eclipsed my original goal. The Carnegie’s "My Wife" would have been the apotheosis of Borat voice, the kind of thing that would either make me happily retire it for good in 2019 or just double down harder. We’ll never know. What I do know is that having friends and loved ones who can put up with my dumbest daily impulses is far more important than winning some demented self-invented lottery.

But goddamn it, I wanted that painting.


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Carnegie International continues through March 25.

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