Of the eight solo shows now at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, most by regional artists, none initially appealed to me less than Derek Reese’s “Calamity.” Glance, and this room-sized installation seems a heedless jumble of detritus, random tacked-on scraps that suggest an artist having a laugh at viewers’ expense.
Pause, though. The work’s dominant feature is a steep, ceiling-high fake hillside, with little trees and model-sized trailer homes clinging precariously to its skin of bright-green artificial turf. (Begin imagining your narrative here.) Concealed beneath that turf — but purposefully visible from the side — is a thicket of scrap wood and other junk, somehow functioning as an infrastructure. Those tiny trailers, in fact, are everywhere. The wooden belly-slats of an overturned cot become a trailer-park street grid, with some 20 little turf patches, each awaiting its domicile. But there are only three trailers — where’d the rest go? Other trailers perch around the gallery amid the seeming debris, which is actually painstakingly assembled: two-by-fours propped on upended five-gallon buckets and in turn propping up jigsawed wooden doors. Other elements are draped in clear plastic or secured by tape. On one wall, in hopeful pathos, hangs a vista crafted from differently colored tarps, scissored to suggest mountains and sky.
- “Anything But Us,” an installation work by Brett Kashmere
Whatever the calamity — earthquake? cyclone? — someone’s tried desperately to restore order. In his artist statement, Reese writes that “Calamity” was inspired by the master’s-level jury-rigging he witnessed in his blue-collar West Virginia youth. Tragicomically, in this gallery, laundry hangs on a line — sleeveless white Ts, weirdly starched flat and with softball-sized holes cut in the chests.
Cleverly, curator Adam Welch fills the gallery adjoining Reese’s brash clutter with the near-emptiness of Danny Bracken’s contemplative “Let It Do What It Does,” a blacked-out room dominated by a single small video projection. And next door to that is Mark Schatz’s “Compendium,” a sparse, abstract and orderly installation. With its tabletop-size urban relief maps held in sleek wooden frames pinned together by clamps, it suggests an architectural model suspensefully awaiting glue.
The PCA’s first-floor entry gallery and adjoining space showcase BA Harrington & Chele Isaac’s Ground Clearance — actually three works exploring still more ways we humans crave order. The centerpiece is “The horses died but the wagons rolled on.” It’s a mock Conestoga wagon with suburban architectural elements, including the gap in a wall where a (repossessed?) widescreen TV should be; “dead” on the floor lies a marvelous metal-armature horse, split front and back, and its halves — in a grand, Dadaist gesture — separated by a big chandelier. In the adjoining gallery stands “The Clearing,” 14 sculptures of tree stumps, each tidily swathed in patterned polyester. Projected on the walls is “American Quartet,” a four-channel, 11-minute video inspired by Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (and sampling dialogue from the film version). With apparently documentary footage, it evokes an arid West, train-haunted, trash-strewn, depopulated except for the odd helmeted figure riding a quad-runner, or motorcycle. Manipulated 1970s pop-rock (Boston, etc.) ironically abets the feeling of an American dream squandered on cheap pleasures.
Other strains of cultural critique surface in SPORTSNATION. Brett Kashmere’s two-gallery installation is announced on a hallway-hung monitor by a video-game loop of LeBron at half court, endlessly scanning an otherwise vacant floor (and equally unpeopled arena) for his absent teammates; hung nearby, framed behind glass, is a charred “James 23” jersey.
Inside one gallery hang pep-rally-style banners from Kashmere’s series This Is Pro Football: “Cruel Rites of Manhood,” “Ballet & Brutality,” “One-Hundred Yard Universe.” But Kashmere isn’t hating on sports so much as asking us to think about them more. He shows how in From Deep, his feature-length 2013 docu-essay, on loop in a darkened gallery. Based on the 20 minutes I saw, this film about the intersection of basketball and hip hop, is a smart, provocative take on things like the racial subtexts of Hollywood hoops fare like Hoosiers; sports and politics (Ali, Kareem); and how stars like Julius Erving, and tracks like Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” (1984), helped turn the 1960s New York street game into the game. This is cultural commentary both trenchant and entertaining.
- “Knew Testament 2,” a painting by Steven Sherrill
The title of Steven Sherrill’s Look Closer suggests we might otherwise be inclined to keep back, or maybe to not look at all. Eccentrically, two of the gallery’s four walls stand empty while two are packed, salon-style, with some 75 smallish, colorful oil paintings depicting people in domestic environments, some almost grotesque, all rendered in Sherrill’s harshly lined style. Many works recall either family portraits or homey snapshots — except that almost all include at least one person who’s anywhere from scantily clad to nude. Many more of the exposed persons are women than men, very often in a picture that’s phlegmatic in tone but for a single boob open to the breeze.
Yet the effect is less prurient than simply odd, not even darkly comic so much as puzzled. Old-school console TVs figure in many of the pictures, sometimes with putatively “wholesome” 1950s- or ’60s-style imagery subverted by girlie-mag poses. Figures in several paintings have paper bags over their heads, perhaps a bit more certain how they feel about the proceedings than is the provocative artist himself.
Not all the PCA exhibits harbor social critique, however cryptic. In the 21 paintings and sculptures that comprise Creep, Haylee Ebersole uses media like dehydrated gelatin and crystalizing agent, or Koolaid and paint on canvas, to create a wide variety of effects, suggesting everything from scorched vinyl upholstery to geode-encrusted film. Collectively, it’s an impressive exercise in texture and form.
Still, of these eight exhibits, the crowd-pleaser is surely Ron Donoughe’s 90 Neighborhoods, organized by Laura Domencic. (Welch curated the other seven.) As the plain-spoken title says, the exhibit evidences Donoghue’s passion for urban landscapes, modestly sized, in oil. Who wouldn’t want to know how Donoghue represents her ’hood, whether it’s a Lawrenceville alley sheeted in ice or a landmark like the Highland Park Reservoir? Donoughe renders light so winningly (his Pittsburgh is perhaps atypically sunny) that it might not strike you right away that his landscape is as absent of people as Reese’s. But rather than an environment cobbled together out of hunger, the painter’s is one complete in itself, and somehow reassuring.