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I don’t know what it is about the Mattress Factory museum in Pittsburgh but personally I’m convinced that it contains a magical people portal, a feature that transforms art viewing into the shared cultural event it was meant to be. Now, I haven’t lived in Pittsburgh long, only nine months, but in this museum’s quiet, nearly deserted spaces I have run into people I might have only hoped to see—while passing through the dark antechamber to Yayoi Kusama’s permanent installation for example, which itself resembles a fantastical mirrored transporter pod. So if the point of the Pittsburgh Biennial is to encounter some of your more interesting neighbors, the Mattress Factory delivers.
Let me pan out for a bit of context first. Initiated in 1994 by Murray Horne, then director of exhibitions at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (now curator of Wood Street Galleries and SPACE through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust), the Pittsburgh Biennial is designed to showcase local artists. I am a little weary of the phrase “taking the temperature of the arts” but that is what the Biennial, like all contemporary surveys, is purported to do. It is also a complement to the Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA), which occurs every five years. The International began in 1896 and is second only to the Venice Biennale as the oldest survey of contemporary art in the world.
Moving from macrocosm to microcosm, the Pittsburgh Biennial offers a serious and attention-grabbing format for local contemporary art, and since expanding to include Pittsburgh Filmmakers in 2008 (Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Pittsburgh Filmmakers merged in 2006), it has continued to gain partner venues. This year marks the Biennial’s ninth and largest iteration to date. With openings rolling out over the summer and fall at each of the following (in order by date): Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh Glass Center, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Mattress Factory, Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, SPACE Gallery, and The Andy Warhol Museum, this year’s exhibitions required an extra year of planning (the last Biennial was held in 2011).
Trying to choose only one venue to discuss is difficult because all are important to the whole and each take a different tack. Carnegie Museum of Art assistant curator Amanda Donnan featured a single artist this year (Corey Escoto), while Pittsburgh Center for the Arts curator Adam Welch selected a whopping twenty-three artists. The Mattress Factory’s co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk have selected five Pittsburgh artists, and I decided to visit their installations on behalf of Arthopper readers.
Each artist’s work holds its own on various museum floors, cheek to jowl with permanent installations by notables such as Greer Lankton, Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell. Riding the elevator to the first level and studying the map in anticipation, the doors open and a large three-dimensional word balloon confronted me with the statement: “Sometimes I just don’t know how to be in the world,” and I thought, “Hey, me too!” I was immediately receptive to what this exhibition had to offer if simple, all-too-human truths were to be the subject. Turning left, this word balloon’s bigger brother filled the large gallery space; held aloft by unpainted 2 x 4s, it read: “So I talk and talk and work to try and fill the emptiness.” If the initial, smaller cartoon bubble held a satisfying Buddhist koan of truth for me, the second was slightly annoying in a way the artist John Peña must have meant it to be; it was the physical bi-product of the first truth. Approaching these cartoonish word bubbles as objects was like being an ant in a nest filled with giant eggs. As the balloon glutonously assumed the whole room, I grappled with its text. Then I realized I should just let it go and allow the first idea to wash over me in its perfect unanswerability.
I wondered how Peña managed to install such a physically massive and pristine object safely in the gallery, and then I wondered why he did not make the effort to paint over his pencil marks on the smaller version, or hide some of the joiner’s putty on one of the support planks. It is often difficult to know what is intentional and what is not in craftsmanship, but this felt a little like talking to a friend who is saying something really smart but with a tiny bit of food on their face.
Overall, though, the simplicity of Peña’s two-piece installation Word Balloons (2014) made me want to see more of the artist’s work and it turns out these motifs are a frequent occurrence, particularly in his ongoing series of Daily Geology drawings. His website reveals an artist well on the rise from exhibition to residency, like the yodeling mountain climber scaling the incline on The Price is Right. Peña’s work looks to be satisfyingly well made, touching and funny, specifically the short video where he tries to outrun the shadow of a real cloud across a grassy field. The Mattress Factory’s installation of Peña’s work was a delightful amuse-bouche and I look forward to seeing more, especially his public art pieces, which seem the most successful.
Yodeling up a level myself, I arrived at the next floor to find a delightful circus awaiting me. Bejamin Sota’s Damn everything but the circus (2014) is an installation that offers up a safe space in which to play. There is even a cordoned lane to wind and a turnstile that thumps loudly on your way into the tent where music plays and the artifacts of a deserted circus remain for you to use. I was alone, jotting down notes but too scared from having once worked as a gallery guard to touch anything. A young man with a German-sounding accent was in the tent and as he left I said, “I thought you were going to try tightrope walking.” So we laughed awkwardly and he came back and dared, falling almost immediately. When I tried to walk on the low metal tightrope, he began riding around on the tiny bicycle. Suddenly we were two strangers playing together and it was sweet.
The experience is just what Sota wanted, summed up in his inspirational quotation from E. E. Cummings:
Damn everything but the circus!…damn everything that is grim, dull, motionless, unrisking, inward turning, damn everything that won’t get into the circle, that won’t enjoy. That won’t throw its heart into the tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence…
Sota describes the circus as a “temporary autonomous zone” or TAZ, otherwise known as a “socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control and have been known to spark change throughout the world.” This tent and its contraptions—a bicycle with wings that flap as you ride, tightrope, kettle drum, and other fun gadgets and acrobatic props—are a satellite branch of Sota’s ongoing project Zany Umbrella Circus. Ambitious in scale but charming in its folksy theme, Sota uses collaborative performances of puppetry, storytelling, and street theater to bring various audiences together under one safe umbrella, if only for a moment, and therefore change the world in a positive way.
Holding an MFA in physical theater from the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy, Sota teaches at-risk youth (and I would put stuffy adults in that category) feats such as juggling and acrobatics. He has taken Zany Umbrella Circus on the road, last year to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Jordan, but it has been a Pittsburgh phenomenon for over a decade. This installation was an excellent introduction for those like me who may not have experienced his art until now, proving that it works on an international level (or at least for me and the European guy).
In the adjacent gallery, Ryder Henry’s installation of miniature architecture, Diaspora (2014), is ambitious in scale and technique. He has handcrafted many layers of civilization from cardboard and other found materials, creating a model of a city crowded with diverse architecture. Floating islands nearby are just large enough to support single structures. In the center of the long gallery, a sea of small brick towers “hold sentry across the suburban expanse.” One has to make his or her way through these gingerly to arrive at the final stage of the universe, namely glowing ringships and what the artist cryptically calls his “Arabic Star Trek.” As I took it all in, I thought how much it reminded me of Moscow, with its colorful onion-domes and historical architecture jumbled in the city’s center, ringed by soulless Cold War-era housing towers and swaddled by the ultimate triumph of Sputnik. In other words, these civilizations really do exist.
The next thing I know, in walks Joachim Schmid, the visiting German artist I had just seen give an incredible lecture the night before as part of CMOA’s Hillman Photography Initiative. He and I were quietly looking at the work and as he bent closer to examine a ringship, I bent closer to examine a ringship. Finally, I broke the silence and like the new fan that I am, told him how truly great his lecture was and then we started talking about Pittsburgh. (It was his first visit to the city.) Looking back I realize that, in effect, Ryder Henry created an installation that allowed me to float momentarily in intergalactic space with the likes of Joachim Schmid. As far as deeper meaning goes … that’s enough.
I descended to the museum’s basement to see Danny Bracken’s installation. Devoid of the cheerful sunshine that pours through the Mattress Factory’s upper floor windows, the lower level always feels like a coalmine. Bracken drew on that dark dampness and made it sing with three pieces that light up the darkness—spot lit circles of grass (one real, one video), a stone crater with amoeba-like digital forms in the bottom, and mist with a projected rainbow at the far end of the room—all joined by the kind of calming instrumental music you might hear while getting a massage. I was genuinely intrigued by Bracken’s stated intention to blur the differences between the physical and digital worlds and also to reclaim the joy of that famous 2010 YouTube phenomenon “Double Rainbow.”
I walked out and pushed the button for the elevator, which seemed intent on never arriving. In the interim, I had the pleasure of watching a scene in which a patch-strewn girl scout was too scared to be coaxed into the bathroom. Something about the museum had scared her and I decided to help by saying: “That’s the point of museums. You are supposed to put yourself in unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable situations.” She turned to me and asked why that room had to be so dark and scary, and why the music was so creepy. I realized she was not talking about the bathroom, but rather Danny Bracken’s installation. “Actually it is supposed to be beautiful,” I said, asking if she wanted to try it again. At the dark entry she grabbed my hand, terrified. I mentioned something notable about each object in passing as we made our way from grassy plot, to crater, to misty rainbow. She dropped my hand and all the girl scouts gathered under the ceiling projector’s light and asked if they could touch the mist or if it would hurt it. Again I was thankful for the magic portal of the Mattress Factory because Bracken’s installation was transformed into a primordial world with small green-clothed child elves touching a rainbow and thinking about the fleeting nature of physicality.
Leaving the museum proper, I hopped on my bike and zoomed around the corner to the outlying exhibition space on the corner of Monterey Street. The curators granted Kathleen Montgomery free reign to take over three floors and 2,000 square feet of space in this historic building to create Body Memory Architecture (2014), which the artist refers to as her “physical ‘sketchbook.’”
Her work is a mix of feminist-themed accouterments—dress forms and sewing materials—mingled with minimalist forms in both two and three dimensions. At times I found the artist’s assembled still-lives exasperating because they are the 19th-century nostalgic kind with glass bottles, vintage head forms for shaping hats, and other tired accessories accumulated on shelves in studied groupings meant to appear random. Yet, there were moments that rose above others and they were most often Montgomery’s drawings—either charcoal and ink on paper, or marks made directly on the wall—and I wished I could see more of this kind of work. The epic scale of this installation is unified by a soothing palette of pale colors (earthy grays, dove blue, and cream) and materials (twine, plaster, dirt from her garden, bare wood, and fabric) that link all the rooms together and offer up the experience of walking through a painting.
So while I preferred the museum’s industrial spaces, in the end I left the Mattress Factory feeling satisfied and happy. The magical people portal had come through again! I learned a bucketful about Pittsburgh’s local art scene and its inhabitants, and a little more about how to be in the world.
The exhibition will be on view at the Mattress Factory through May 31, 2015. See http://www.mattress.org for more information.
Catherine Walworth is a writer living in Pittsburgh. View more articles by Catherine Walworth.