The advertisement for Sworn In, an exhibit at Future Tenant Gallery, bears a downward-pointed right hand with its fingers crossed. This gesture associated with the negation of promises is an intriguing icon for a show that opened just before the presidential inauguration. It prepares viewers for a disparaging perspective. Yet just as the keynote image is nowhere in the gallery, so the criticism proferred is mild and sometimes oblique.
The concept behind the exhibition, guest-curated by Pittsburgh-based artist Lauri Mancuso, actually involves the White House art collection. With the work of 10 artists from Pittsburgh and beyond, Mancuso has turned Future Tenant into a White House parlor referent, although it lacks any improvisations on the mansion's opulent décor.
The exhibition's description notes that it is "modeled after the art collection of the late-Georgian style manse" for a "creative and compelling twist on politics, dialogue and the art of the White House parlor."
Indeed, there is a rich vein of critical dialogue to be mined in the White House art collection. Following Laura Bush's 2007 acquisition of Jacob Lawrence's "The Builders," for instance, Washington City Paper reported that the collection boasted just three African-American artists -- and that as late as 1997, there had been none.
Non-objective art is likewise unrepresented -- despite, for example, The New York School's status as a creative pinnacle in American art. The collection, on the whole, clings to a scenic, heroically stereotypical conception of America, with Frederic Remington's bronze "Bronco Buster" (in the Oval Office during the Bush years) and Norman Rockwell's 1946 "The Statue of Liberty" (just outside the Oval Office). And, naturally, there are dozens of portraits.
But whether Mancuso and participating artists have considered the White House collection's sins of omission is uncertain. Ed Um Bucholtz may broach the subject in his screen-printed, Warhol-esque "White House Disaster" paintings (cleverly and pointedly abbreviated to "WHD"). The images reproduced may come from the building's 1902 renovation or from Truman's 1948-52 emergency overhaul.
Meanwhile, other artists offer symbolic commentary. San Francisco's Sarah Smith, who works in gold leaf and corrosive on paper, offers "Old Bones/New Bones," which depicts an eagle on a cleanly chopped tree stump grasping femurs and tibias like fresh prey, and seems to allude to the abuse of power.
Braddock artist Suzann Miriello offers sumptuous if inscrutable allegories, like her oil-on-canvas underwater scene "Lincoln Memorial," with its rapturous intermingling of aquatic plants, mermaid hair and squid tentacles. David Miriello's large-scale oil-on-linen works also appear allegorical. In "American Landscape," an Amazonian woman holds small pots of fire beside a fire-breathing, dagger-footed horse. Filament-thin spider silk connects spike-sharp trees. The surreal motifs recall Leonora Carrington and Salvador Dali.
Baltimore artist Spoon Popkin creates multiple ink-on-vellum representations of presidential pets, including FDR's Scottie, "Fala," and Teddy Roosevelt's angry-looking "One-legged Rooster." John Riegert's textile triptych "LBJ's Beagle Series" is a speak-for-itself condemnation of Johnson's lack of vigilance. In the central panel, LBJ holds beagle "Him" by the ears. At left, Him is memorialized with an explanation of his demise: He was struck by a car. The right panel pictures, "Her," who died after swallowing a stone.
Brooklyn artist Ben Gersch paints oil-on-wood representations of President Obama and (seemingly off-theme) Pittsburgh notables like Phat Man Dee and Tommy Amoeba. Jennifer Lee paints spare, paint-by-numbers-style oil representations of Mount Vernon and Monticello.
The connection between the promises of Sworn In and the work included can seem tenuous. But perhaps this is the point: We're seeing a very different conception of the 375-piece presidential collection.
In the end, the show's greatest value is as an artistic showcase -- and in its ironic implication that the White House has, comparatively, a collection that's both highly selective and most conventional.
Sworn In continues through Feb. 14. Future Tenant, 819 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7037 or www.futuretenant.org
- Pet project: Spoon Popkin's "See Spot run from a spiraling national deficit and endless war, President G.W. Bush, 2001-2008."