- The peculiar installation: Scott Pellnat's "Slave Ship"
The Exchange exhibit constitutes Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' half of its second swap with Philadelphia's Center for Emerging Visual Artists. While work by Pittsburgh artists heads east, works by more than 20 artists in CFEVA's two-year fellowship program show at the Center. The trade feels like a reasonable one: While not every piece in this showing -- which runs the gamut of media -- stands out, that of Brenna K. Murphy, Scott Pellnat and Danielle Bursk is striking and fresh.
In one gallery space hangs Bursk's large-scale (108-by-72 inches) drawing of cross-hatched black-ink lines on a blank white background, titled "Down Under." The obsessively layered ink marks form a structure that is shaped vaguely like Australia, but these masses of hair-like lines also suggest fur or wool.
In an artist statement, Bursk writes that the viewer might feel the possibility of either being gently supported by the object, or becoming entangled within its snarled lines. Indeed, as one stands before the black shape, its size alone makes the drawing both strangely appealing and ominous. The work looms over the entire room.
Figuratively overshadowed by Bursk's work is a series of small, quiet photographs by Brenna K. Murphy, titled "Home Is Where the Hair Is." First glance reveals four photographs of stark empty rooms. Subtle sunlight creates a romantic, dreamlike effect within the rooms. Also inside the rooms are small drawings of various pieces of furniture: A crib, a dresser, a bed appear as faint outlines.
Close inspection reveals that the lines are not digitally crafted, not drawn or etched, but very meticulously sewn with the artist's hair. The hair, combined with the ghostly outlines of the furniture, strongly suggests the presence of those who have entered a room or lived in a home before us. Quiet and poetic, Murphy's work invites contemplation.
Finally, the pièce de résistance of this group exhibition is undoubtedly Scott Pellnat's installation "Slave Ship." The ambitious work inhabits an entire room in the PCA galleries. Large-scale works are not new to Pellnat: He spent four years turning his first home in Philadelphia into a giant artwork. After he moved out, in 2008, CFEVA continued to use it as a space to display his and other artists' work.
The installation at PCA suggests an apocalyptic landscape in which an 18th-century slave ship and its adjoining lifeboat have seemingly crashed through a contemporary city. Around the approximately 6-foot-long wrecked hull are remnants of telephone poles, rail tracks and what might be a water tower. Some objects are crafted from foam, some are found objects, and the majority are covered in a black ooze of paint. Spilling from the remnants of the bow is a pile of sneakers, covered in reddish paint. And inside the "lifeboat" is a macabre, soot-covered doll that is slumped on the deck, miniature wash-pails spread around her. She is motorized and moves her arm, rocking back and forth.
The entire effect is obviously, and terribly, creepy. It is difficult to judge what's meant by this work: Pellnat is white and, in a vague artist statement, he says that the work is about "a fine line between humor and despair, sexuality and death, guilt and will." It is not a stretch to read into it a comment about a collective guilt concerningAmerica's treatment of African Americans. But this theatrical work is open-ended and seems to invite a plethora of readings.
The exhibition as a whole is slightly scattered and inconsistent, but the presence of these and other strong works are certainly worth the visit.
The Exchange continues through Jan. 24. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org