In the age of memories downloaded or outsourced — the ones in our heads made redundant by endless documents, selfies, social-media profiles — it’s curious that so many of the nine shows currently at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts refer, implicitly or explicitly, to memory. Yet as these solo and collaborative exhibitions by regional artists, make clear, the vagaries and possibilities of memory still call strongly to the imagination.
Indeed, the PCA’s front-most gallery houses Nicole Renee Ryan’s exhibit of seven oil-on-board abstracts titled The Place and the Unplace: Memories of Memories. These “imagined landscapes” render the land in blocky swatches of orange, green and pink, the sky in faint blue, with filmy yellow clouds; one painting suggests a cityscape. Most create feelings of expansive contentment, save the tumultuous “You Don’t Know How Much I F**ing Love You.”
Memory as palimpsest informs Horizon Lost, Nikki Brugnoli’s works built around photographs of 120 19th-century beehive coke ovens (steel-industry relics) in a rural mining town. In the monochromatic “Swallowed,” dripped ink and scratched graphite emphasize the gravelike nature of the oven mouths; her watercolor screenprints contain colorful, overlapping imagery powerfully evoking these mortared ruins (with haunting audio piped in). Place-memory also figures in Jiyon Hong’s “Corrected Memory of a City,” a wall-sized schematic of cryptically annotated circles and arrows representing Pittsburgh, including its two biggest parks, and text reading “CMU” and “To Airport.” Jiyon’s nearby photorealistic paintings of river rocks neatly spaced on otherwise blank canvases, and of fanciful wooden constructions, make the gallery feel larger than it is, suggesting that his real subject is space itself.
Perhaps the most powerful exhibit here exploring memories is Oblivion, Misty Morrison’s collection of nine large oils. Two are still-lifes, one of a kitchen with an upended chair and smashed crockery; in three, the same adult woman interacts with a version of herself (two paintings are actually 180-degree reversals of each other). The subdued palette, harsh up- and side-lighting and accompanying printout of text messages — like “I can’t believe the way I treat people I love” — document emotional trauma and disassociation from the self. Morrison’s command of facial expressions is masterful; the effect is quietly devastating.
Not all recourses to memory succeed equally. In her wall-text for Cave, Lauren Wilcox states that she’s critiquing received notions of femininity, and how our “memory” of how people are supposed to be can cloud our understanding of what they are. It’s a valid point, strongly suggested by six manipulated photos of subjects, including a blindfolded young woman. The other seven works are abstracts encrusted with Borax crystals; the effect is interesting, but connecting these pieces to the artist’s statement about “the cumulative effect of passing impressions” is a metaphorical stretch.
PCA’s largest gallery is devoted to He’s American, a potent collaboration between Devan Shimoyama and Danny Ferrell that “examines fantasies and fears about the other through depictions of everyday queer black and white male experiences.” In Ferrell’s oil paintings, a Diet Coke can gripped in a tattooed, cigarette-bearing hand reflects the image of two beefy naked dudes embracing; a young man, irradiated green, sits on a riverbank holding a second, semi-ghostly man, both of them shirtless; and a young man, his Calvin Klein briefs visible, covers his face with the tail of his sweatshirt. The luminous palette suggests a slightly overexposed photo. Shimoyama offers “A Kiss,” a pair of Timbalands flung across an overhead cable, one plain, one rhinestone-spangled and sprouting flowers; two supersized black-velvet hoodies, one beaded, one feathered; and “For Tamir III,” a totemic tree branch, suspended from the ceiling, rhinestoned and bearing feathers, a tragic memorial.
Not everything here explicitly concerns memory. Reveries juxtaposes Shannon Hines’ whimsical vanities (curvaceous upholstered benches and mirror frames) with Isabel Farmsworth’s installations, including the witty “Bouyancy (dreaming of flight).” Interdependent pairs Angela Biederman’s amusing “Poles” (two utility poles, complete with wires) with Jonathan Schwarz’s assemblies incorporating found objects and broken pottery. Schwarz’s pieces are hit-or-miss, but his “youandi” does warrant its own room: Atop a spindly column, two vaguely anthropomorphic ceramic figures contemplate a perilous journey across a flimsy wooden bridge suspended over a pile of time-darkened wooden lathe.
Finally, MO Studios is less a coherent statement than a look at the studio environment of Magic Organs (which, to be fair, is all it purports to be). All four walls and the ceiling are covered with edgily playful paintings, prints, collages and video, plus examples of the found materials used by collaborative co-founders DS Kinsell and Julie Mallis; note Mallis’ “Hello White People Signs” (“White Guilt Tears Sins,” with “guilt” and “tears” crossed out) and Kinsel’s “n-word signs” (“How Many Niggaz Do You Know?”). If you don’t know MO, this is a decent introduction, and one you’ll remember next time you see their work.