Just in case you missed it: Pittsburgh: The Great Deceiver (Part One)

The Warhol

The next morning I took the T (aka, the trolley) into the city, and walked across the bridge to The Warhol. I love The Warhol. (Hate the NO PHOTOS policy though.) It never lets me down. Feels a bit like Mecca to me. Even when I know what’s on, I always come across surprises. The first one greeted me in the 1st floor museum intro room. For the first time, I saw the “Album of a Mat Queen” (1962), Warhol’s silkscreen of the writer and painter Rosalyn Drexler from her days as a professional wrestler. (SORRY. NO PHOTOS.) A huge fan of Drexler, I had only read about this image. This is standard operating procedure at The Warhol. Surprises from their deep collection around every corner. (SORRY. NO PHOTOS.)

The Warhol’s no photo policy is just absurd.

I approached the Shepard Fairey exhibit with caution having heard some not-so-great things about his Boston ICA outing. I was pleasantly surprised though, finding the exhibit more emotional than physical. The limitations presented by the height of the walls kept the larger work contained without being overwhelming. It helped with the successful transition from the street that I was hoping for. The medium-sized “Arab Woman” (2009) is especially moving, and it opened the door to the rest of the show for me. I could feel the drop in the steel plate print of “Obey Minneapolis Stay Up” (2005). On one of the walls the museum had placed the Warhol quote, “Art is what you can get away with.” A nice nod to the illegal nature of his wheatpasting adventures, it also nicely summed up what a lot of people think (negatively and positively) about Fairey’s work.

After the special exhibits, I was ready to explore the museum’s rich permanent collection. Let’s make it clear what that means. You can go to the Warhol every two to four weeks and see something different. The first time I visited the museum there was an entire room of the Basquiat collaborations. Next time the room contained just one of those paintings, a couple collaborative pieces with Francesco Clemente, a brilliant pink Last Supper and assorted other Warhol works. And shall we talk about the time I found an entire room of the “piss paintings” with hilariously placed placard that made the simple request, “Please do not touch the paintings.”? Um, yeah. Not a problem. Ironically, I almost pissed my pants laughing.

A shutterbug himself, I wonder what/who Warhol would’ve supported? Stodgy anti-photo policies or snap-happy art bloggers?

But that is then. This was now. In true Warhol Museum style, they had an entire display case filled with Andy’s 1984 Time Magazine cover portrait of Michael Jackson. That’s how they roll here. (SORRY. NO PHOTOS.) Another room had a display of Christmas illustrations from his commercial and his fine art days. Whimsical and more than a little touching. The real surprise was waiting nearby with the reinstalled “Silver Clouds.” The last time I visited was the first time that it had been taken out of commission. Besides the kick of having it back, they had made the stellar curatorial decision to change the paint in the room from white to black. (SORRY. NO PHOTOS.) The choice expanded the feel of the room and created a new set of reflective possibilities. There are always a couple rooms that are a hodgepodge of Warhol paintings, prints, sculptures, and objects from the archive. Connections and themes develop, sometimes intentional, and sometimes not. There was an unusual “Green Stamps” painting with just twelve stamps in the upper left corner, the rest of the canvas filled with the background color. (SORRY. NO PHOTOS.) Across the way sat Edie Sedgewick’s stool, complementing the loneliness felt in the stamp painting. Adding to it was what I can only describe (SORRY. NO PHOTOS.) as a negative space soup can painting. It offered one of the more poignant moments of the visit.

Before we move on … did you notice that? There were NO PHOTOS of anything at the Warhol Museum. At the Warhol Museum! There weren’t too many links to works either because their website is downright feeble. Warhol Museum, (as stated above) I love ya, but you’re breaking my heart here. Anyway, onward to an institution that knows how to embrace and exploit technology: The Mattress Factory.

The Mattress Factory

Conveniently The Mattress Factory is also on the North Side, about an 8 minute walk from The Warhol. I had made the trip to The Warhol a number of times before I was turned onto the place by my old West Village work neighbors, artists Lisa Hein and Bob Seng. (Thank you FOREVER, Lisa and Bob!) While the Warhol is my touchstone, with its strong permanent collection and its daring program of temporary exhibits, the Mattress Factory is my adventure rocketship. For some kind of balance, I’d like to say “Even when it fails it’s interesting,” but in 10 years I’ve never seen it fail. It’s just given me different levels of stellar and this time was no different.

For me, the centerpiece of their collection is on the second floor that houses three James Turrell pieces. “Catso, Red (1967)” (1994), and “Danaë” (1983) are on the more standard side of things as far as Turrell goes, but remember we are talking Turrell here. The one that will haunt you for weeks though is “Pleiades” (1983). This is not your mama’s Turrell. So strong, it actually works when you close your eyes. I mean that literally. To avoid ruining any surprises for the prospective viewer I’ll leave it at that.

Sarah Oppenheimer, “610-3356” (2008) (click to enlarge)

Speaking of amazing art I don’t want to tell you too much about, there’s the not-permanent-but-been-there-for-awhile “610-3356” (2008) by Sarah Oppenheimer. It’s another perception bender, this one dealing with the idea of inside/outside in its own way. While “Pleiades” illusion shrouds itself in mystery, Oppenheimer’s piece almost dares you to figure it out. And when you do, it only increases the velocity of the perceptual train bearing down.

Tony Oursler, “Vampiric Battle” (2009) (click to enlarge

The current exhibiition Likeness investigates portraiture and is (SHOCKER!) typically good. Radiant work by Jim Campbell is found after Paul DeMarinis’ deliciously dissolving Dust. Two other standouts in the show are the more well-known Nikki S. Lee and Tony Oursler. In both cases, I got what I wasn’t expecting. With Lee, she takes off into unfamiliar territory. There is not a tableau in sight. Instead, Lee layers images of herself drawn by street artists from around the world. It creates a soft vulnerability that I don’t usually find in her work. With Oursler, what I was expecting was to not like it. Not a fan of the artist, I was even a little disappointed to see that he was in the show. Then, well, I looked at the art. The piece is in the ever cosmically creepy basement room of the museum which only adds to its tension. Digits and faces are projected onto cut-out discs lined up in the room. I usually roll my eyes and move on to the next thing when it comes to Oursler, but I found myself getting lost in the sound and overwhelming images here. It was a nice change of pace. More please.

Greer Lankton, “It’s all about ME, Not You” (1996) at the Mattress Factory

Detail of Greer Lankton’s “It’s all about ME…” (click to enlarge)

A new addition to the Mattress Factory’s permanent collection is an installation by Greer Lankton that was first shown here in 1996, just before the artist’s death. “It’s all about ME, Not You” (1996) wasn’t just on my Top 10 list this year. It was my Top 10 list. Viewed mostly through tears, the work addresses just about every issue that’s been important to the art world for the last 30 years: identity, religion, disease, fame, sex, the body, gender, addiction. Not necessarily in that order, but all at once. The gates are wide open here. It’s as beautiful as it is horrible, populated with Lankton’s dolls, altars, empty pill bottles, and bathroom scale warnings. The space is about the size of Lankton’s East Village apartment, but from the outside it has the appearance of a suburban home transplanted into a toy train set. In the end, we’re outside looking in, but in spite of the title’s warning the work isn’t just about her, it’s about both of us.

Wood Street Galleries

My last stop is always Wood Street Galleries because it’s located in two floors above the T station. I’ve never quite been able to get a handle on the forces behind the place. That’s OK though. I’m just happy that it does what it does. And that is to have a seemingly unbreakable chain of really smart and strong shows. (Am I starting to sound like a broken record? Too bad. This is what happens in Pittsburgh. Every time.) I’ve discovered new artists here and I’ve found familiar faves stretching themselves.

In 2006, Doug and Mike Starn had a show up when I visited in the spring. The images they used were familiar, but their application was new and thrilling. The lower floor had a combination of massive and smaller prints with projections hitting the middle of the room. Upstairs it was all projected images from their snow photos, sliding into focus and then back into the distance on the floor, layer upon layer constantly shifting and constantly beautiful. When I returned to Wood Street in December that same year there was a show by Miguel Chevalier, that I was thrilled to be able to take my 12-year-old nephew to. Remember that Jennifer Steinkamp at Lehmann Maupin’s Lower East Side space back in 2008? Yeah. Well imagine if it had been interactive. And then imagine that you’re a 12-year-old boy being able to run around the room while the art reacts to your movements. It was a beautiful thing to see, and an excellent way for him to find out what art could be.

Julien Maire, “Exploding Camera” (2007)

I have to admit I was a little hesitant when it came to the show by French artist, Julien Maire. On approach it seemed a little academic. And it was. Science and politics were in full effect. But that didn’t mean that it stopped it from being a full-body experience. “The Memory Cone” let me in on that little secret. The viewer has to manipulate pieces of paper on a table to piece together an area on a screen to capture shifting projected images. It was a physical reflection of what it’s like to try to pull a memory together in your mind. Yeah. I was in. A month later, and I can still feel that sensation in my bones. Another piece consisted of a pile of nearly microscopic ball bearings that I squeezed and reconfigured with my hands while close-up video of the act were immediately projected onto the wall. It looked like all those slo-mo shots of Godzilla when he’s crushing hillsides. HELLO moment of playing God and destroying and exploding nature. Just across the room from that was a piece entitled “Exploding Camera,” a reference to Commander Massoud, a foe of the Taliban assassinated a few days before 9/11. The broken bits of the machine barely worked, delivering it’s fractures of images and film as best it could. It was an act of disorientation of the image, and consequently, of information. It was broken, just like us. Not the happiest message on which to end the day, but a satisfying and true one.

I hopped back on the T and plugged into that King Crimson live recording hailing from the same city 35 years ago. After the walk-on music, the band launches into a scalding version of “The Great Deceiver,” a song from their album Starless and Bible Black. Gravity lifts and pulls back as the band keeps working the boundaries of the song, blasting its way through when the time is right. Like so many Crimson workouts, Pittsburgh knows its borders are made of rivers and hills but isn’t afraid to move wildy within them, while at the same time finding the freedom to move past them for survival, light, and breath. This is a great town. And the art’s not bad either.

BONUS TRACKS: None of my damn business, but … artists who should have shows in Pittsburgh.

The Mattress Factory
Kate Gilmore. Those of you who’ve read me long enough know that I’m a huge fan of Gilmore’s videos. What I’ve been happy to see more of in the last couple years is her endeavors to bring the installations outside the videos and into the space.
Tommy Hartung. Going on intuition here, but if the haunting beauty Hartung conveyed during his recent show at On Stellar Rays is any indication his work would fit nicely into the legacy of the downstairs room.

The Warhol
Kathe Burkhart. Sorry. She gets a room just for her Liz paintings. Put them up in a duel with Warhol’s Liz’s.
Richard Pettibone. The retrospective that was traveling around a couple years ago would probably be difficult to manage, but what about a room dedicated to a show of Pettibone’s suites of soup cans. Both the newer group AND the old group that Castelli had in storage forever.

Wood Street Galleries
Michael Bell-Smith. Would love to see what Bell Smith would do with an opportunity to really go big with his work.
Michael Ashkin. Two floors of Michael Ashkin? Are you kidding? That would be awesome. He could totally go to town. Pun intended.

Brent Burket is a writer and curator living in Brooklyn. His blog is called Heart As Arena, and he tweets here. He has a really bad sense of direction.