- A bronze sculpture by Robert Davis and Michael Langois, and paintings by Andy Warhol, occupies one gallery in The End.
During the Andy Warhol Museum's opening reception for The End: Analyzing Art in Troubled Times, the ceiling crumbled a few feet from a pristine sculpture -- a white marble slab engraved with the Second Amendment, in Latin. Visitors straining to read the text -- which most of us can't interpret in English -- helplessly watched what looked like yet another sign of the impending apocalypse.
Forget about bearing arms. How about an umbrella?
Thus the show's theme: a sense that maybe the sky really is falling, due to tanking investment banks, housing markets and auto companies. The arts suffer too, naturally, but no one expects the museums themselves to collapse.
Similarly, no one expected Pittsburgh to host yet another relatively large, international survey, while most institutions are thriftily dusting off "oldies but goodies" from their permanent collections.
But the Warhol's new curator of art, Eric Shiner, has taken a decidedly "What Would Andy Do?" approach. Like Warhol, who shrewdly paid homage to the dollar in both his aesthetic and business practices, Shiner boasts that he assembled his first two exhibitions "on a dime" -- for under $50,000. He commissioned only one new work for The End, a coffee mug by Cary Leibowitz that's on sale in the museum shop, and he's quick to explain how he cut corners. He's even quicker to point out that while Warhol might have been cheap, he rarely let it show.
"He wouldn't throw away even a half-box of staples, but he owned five houses plus the two [Factory studios] in New York," says 37-year-old Shiner, a Pittsburgh native who worked as an independent curator in New York before returning in October for the Warhol post. "I doubt he would have been moved at all by the downturn."
Shiner also chose art that would resonate with the many Warhols included here. Mostly, The End offers detached, emotionally distant depictions of doom and disaster (like Warhol's "Electric Chair" and Mao portraits) that reference social malaise only through its symbols, without addressing any systemic problems. In fact, most of the works -- such as Robert Davis and Michael Langois' 2000 bronze of the Grim Reaper pissing a pool of luminescent urine that spreads across a gallery floor -- were created before the current economic crisis.
"There's a lot of dry humor in the show that speaks directly to both [Warhol's sensibilities] and a very American ability to shrug off things and move on," Shiner says. "[But] also the idea of 'reversal of fortune' -- about being in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time."
Raymond Pettibon uses ink and scribbled text in "No Title (Seeing It Wasn't)" to depict a hapless baseball player facing his third strike. We see the perfect pitch spiraling toward him, from his perspective, "thigh high like I ordered it. Like the other two I sent back. Untouched. Dumbstruck. Too dumbfounded to s-wing."
Pettibon dismantles more than this guy's dreams, depicting his impending failure within one national institution, baseball, and undermining the validity of another -- the very American notion of self-determination.
The End challenges ideological assumptions in larger, abstract moments, too, as in David Deutsch's tightly gridded installation of 99 silver-gelatin prints skewering suburbia. Using a rented helicopter and a floodlight, he flew over private homes by night and photographed them as sites of both police privacy violations and isolationist indulgences.
Other works do mark human suffering though literal images ... though these are often so steeped in camp that any sentiment is rendered impotent. For example, Lukas Maximillian Hüller creates Bosch-esque panoramas of the seven deadly sins. "Wrath" is set on a frozen battlefield where: an elephant head hangs from a tree alongside orange jump-suited inmates; uniformed soldiers pose like fashion models beside half-naked torture victims; and a triumvirate -- a golfer, a bonneted boxer in a red shift, and a heavy-metal Medusa -- reigns over the circus with an iron fist (or actually just a 5-iron).
Viewers seeking a smoldering critique of our times won't find it here. Then again, those people likely view Warhol's entire career as one big aesthetic Ponzi scheme -- layers and layers of investment with no real payoff.
For those who find solace in ironic overtures, however, The End might actually inspire hope. After all, when Warhol was shot, in 1968, he was clinically dead for a few seconds before paramedics revived him. And he prospered for another 20 years, before dying during a routine gallbladder operation.
"Andy was a pro at creating spin," Shiner says. "And manipulating markets and stories. I think he would be laughing right now."
The End: Analyzing Art in Troubled Times continues through May 3. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300