Mattress Factory installations explore sustainable design, detritus and more | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Mattress Factory installations explore sustainable design, detritus and more

Factory Installed includes artists from Pittsburgh and around the country

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The Mattress Factory's 1414 Monterey Street venue now features four room-sized artworks, part one of the two-part Factory Installed series. According to the museum, the artists or teams in Factory Installed "demonstrate a uniquely different approach to the creative process" and were chosen from among more than 500 applicants from 27 countries.

With Mattress Factory's international, 30-year reputation in one hand and a giant pool of international applicants in another, a two-fisted event in the name of installation art is to be expected.

Surprising then to find oneself in a room resembling a well-staged open house: sparse, slickly furnished with mid-century treatments and attractive green-glowing light fixtures. ("Conversation pieces," says the imaginary real-estate agent.) But this is not sarcasm. Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier, an architect and designer respectively, both based in Pittsburgh, present their installation "Living Things" as a near-future glimpse of "living architecture."

Those green orbs that emanate light and circulate water are photobioreactors (vessels or machines that support the proliferation of simple organisms such as bacteria). The green substance is living spirulina — here proposed as an easily renewable resource that can be harvested for food, turning homes from "units of consumption [in]to units of production."

Julie Schenkelberg's "The Color of Temperance: Embodied Energy" (detail) - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MATTRESS FACTORY
  • Photo courtesy of the Mattress Factory
  • Julie Schenkelberg's "The Color of Temperance: Embodied Energy" (detail)

The blown-glass system of photobioreactors, suspended in intricate leather slings, resting on tables or mounted on walls, are tethered to custom "3-D printed nylon sleeves" and become the motif for three handsome living spaces: dining, sitting and work rooms.

But worthy intentions aside, "Living Things" is clearly a design proposal — a conversation piece — for sustainable architecture, custom-fitted for those who can afford its contemplation. The installation's hard-boiled, fussy, World's Fair sexiness is entirely out of context. Rather than an installation, it's high-concept product design misplaced in a gallery, and it dodges professional consideration as architecture, sustainability design and installation art. Questions of value aside, its function would be better served in one of the relatively multitudinous outlets with sustainable energy design written into its mission. Meanwhile, in the zero-sum reality for installation artists — the 500 rejected, for example — dedicated spaces and grant monies are their pots of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Art is notoriously illogical. May the pendulum swing back from the trend — the inferiority complex — that art must possess clearly outlined and marketable good ideas that benefit society.

A well-situated contrast is the two-room installation, "The Color of Temperance: Embodied Energy," by Julie Schenkelberg. She's a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based artist whose material sensibility seems improvisational but guided by a certain visual compulsion. Positioned against walls or atop damaged structures and furniture are spilling stacks of broken chinaware, linens and decorative miscellany, or what one older museum visitor whispered to her companion was "the stuff we leave the kids when we die." Apt, because a disintegrated form of nostalgia seems intended, like the printed motifs borrowed from a rococo revival that captured imaginations of great grandmothers, now reformed into an unsettling dream. The room is strewn with fallen lathe, tree branches and wrought iron draped in chunky plaster, and painted light blue with touches of gold, silver and pink.

Everything seems candied, as echoed by a lone glazed donut with sprinkles that sits on the window sill, a welcome oddity easing the melodrama. The installation's other room is more intriguing in its simple poetry, with belabored piles and arrangements of what could be the museum's own infrastructure, crumbling and fallen.

Breaking from material chaos is Ancramdale, N.Y.-based Anne Lindberg's "shift lens." It's an installation — or, better, occurrence — wherein one side of a white room becomes a static and striated mirage of yellow and blue. The color mass looks nearly digital, like a cloud of pixels in space, an effect achieved by natural light propagating through an arrangement of miles of colored thread (blue from floor to ceiling and yellow from wall to wall). Anchoring the thread are metallic staples arrayed along a fine-lined grid of pencil marks, the presence of which is like a time stamp of labor and process.

John Morris's "Life, Afterlife" comprises another room of assembled common throwaways; what's different is Pittsburgh-based Morris's affectation of preciousness toward the curated hoard. Some items appear reproduced, perhaps cast, while other seem re-used and re-worked. Both approaches suggest elaborate reversals of mass waste production. Flattened plastic soda bottles with hand-painted labels, anonymous pieces of textured plastic, spoons, random wooden things (or their facsimiles) are hung on the wall in sculptural, grid-like clusters of wire and line that, against the room's flat white surfaces, resemble drawings. From a distance, these interspersed assemblages suggest swarms moving against the wall. Up close, the promoted pieces of detritus are seen to be attached to the structure with paper clips, like impossible wind chimes in an odd play with mass, texture and rationale.

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