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House Painting

An artist takes a new look at an old building

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Time after Time, Time and Time Again, This Time -- the word is littered through song lyrics like discarded digital watches. In architecture, by comparison, the issue of time is less immediately visible, though time is the thing that drives the interpretation of both architecture and art. Just look at Clayton as portrayed in the paintings of Felix de la Concha, displayed at the Frick Art & Historical Center.

 

Built in the 1860s, Clayton was renovated in the 1890s to designs by architect Frederick Osterling to serve more appropriately as a home for the family of coke magnate Henry Clay Frick -- and not incidentally, as a showcase for their considerable wealth. From the oddly faddish chateau-style architecture down to the Lincrusta Walton -- a short-lived late-Victorian interior designer's version of pleather -- the house is stuck just at the turn of the 20th century, where it doesn't even have a broken clock's chance of being right once again. That suits the Fricks' late 19th-century sensibilities about mourning and memorialization.

 

It's also just fine with Felix de la Concha. The Spanish-born American painter introduced himself to Pittsburghers by doing a painting a day of the Cathedral of Learning before applying a similar tactic to Clayton as artist-in-residence. In one series of this exhibition, titled A Contrareloj: A Race Against Time, he produced a painting a day inside the house.

 

Some of these focus on the luxurious art and artifacts, such as the Tiffany window that is the subject of the painting on Wed., Feb. 12, 2003, and the crystal decanters of Fri., March 21. De la Concha clearly shares with the Fricks a fascination with shiny, sparkly things. But mundane objects appear as well. The Wed., March 12, image depicts the bathtub, for example. Here is a sink. There is the hood over the kitchen stove.

 

This is significant, because even though Clayton itself is a splendid and well-administered repository of architecture, art and design, let's face it: The Fricks were a bunch of vastly overcapitalized paranoid narcissists. "It was an era of navel-gazing for the wealthy," a specialist on the subject once told me, spreading the blame to a generation of robber barons. Accordingly, de la Concha's painting-a-day series is brilliant because he manages to defuse much of that stiffness and pretense. In a house full of focal points, he often frames views of the incidental, finding occasional humility within the otherwise-overwhelming effusion of wealth. His eye for light is nuanced, so each view truly reflects a particular moment, not the era's will to eternity. And yet his brushwork is also breezily masterful.

 

The artist's real tour de force, though, is the panorama, a continuous painting made of panels wrapped around a cylinder in one room of the exhibition. He began by selecting one spot on the outdoor porch of the house. He positioned himself precisely and worked on one panel painting for an hour. Each subsequent hour, he would rotate with clock-like accuracy and work on another panel, creating an almost seamless 360-degree panorama. But as it is installed, the painting doesn't surround the viewer -- the viewer has to circumnavigate the painting, and walking around the panorama recreates the passage of time. The view is continuous, but it gradually shifts through morning, noon and night, then back to morning.

 

The technique is amazing, as de la Concha's ability to harness the color of an exact time of day drives the success of the piece. But the concept itself also resonates, as the static media of painting and architecture become reconstituted here as essays in motion and the passage of time. The experience is enhanced by Spike Wolff's exhibition design, a few wispy and interweaving curved walls that are subtle yet aptly metaphorical. Painting-as-motion is an old chestnut of an analysis of early Cubism in one way and of Abstract Expressionism in another, but it applies to this work with freshness and vitality. The idea is sophisticated but also accessible. "I'm going backwards! I'm going against the calendar!" one visitor announced excitedly.

 

Perhaps the Fricks would have approved.

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