Friday, March 27, 2009

Firelei Baez at Unsmoke Art Space

Posted By on Fri, Mar 27, 2009 at 1:50 PM

Unsmoke is likely the area's most memorably situated art gallery: It's housed in a former Catholic grade school in Braddock, right across Braddock Avenue from the gates and smokestacks of U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson works. The building, owned by Braddock Deputy Mayor Jeb Feldman, is home to a budding artists's collective, and is part of Mayor John Fetterman's attempts to revitalize the largely desolate old mill town.

But I wouldn't note all this if the art at Unsmoke weren't usually memorable, too, and that's been the case since the place opened last July. Most prominently, it's hosted teeming group shows and multimedia events -- even once a literary reading that accompanied the debut of a new outdoor wood-fired pizza oven.

The current show opened quieter, on Sat., March 21, and runs shorter. But as long as there's a little wine, it counts as a reception. And the show is plenty engaging on its own terms, particularly large-scale paintings and drawings by young, Brooklyn-based artist Firelei Baez.

One side wall of the gallery (the former school's high-ceilinged rec space) features Baez's amazing graphite renderings of women of different ethnicities, their hair seemingly prone to grooming by small bright birds. (In her artist statement, Baez notes, "In Caribbean folklore any part of the body represents the soul, especially hair. It is necessary to protect one's soul by making sure that any hair that is shed does not wind up in the hands of others. If a bird picks up one's hair and incorporates it into its nest, then the person's soul is placed in limbo.") Along the gallery's back wall, a couple other drawings, which seem to depict close-ups of orgiastic sex, likewise show off her drafting skill.

But Baez's signature is probably her more colorful work, paintings that seem to depict the mutated forms of furry, naked Rubenesque female figures. They are presented, typically, with their backs turned, in stilleto heels, their upper bodies obscured by wreathing foliage. In a variation, a couple works offer similar female forms, only this time disturbingly truncated: nothing below one knee, and a nothing but a coil of rope emanating from the other. The bodies, rendered in riotous tropical watercolors, mesh with abstract, protoplasmic emanations. Another image, somewhat disturbingly, combines reiterations of a well-fleshed leg and hip into a single, somehow larval form.

Baez was born in the Dominican Republic; the mass of black hair adorning some of the figures she paints might be her own (she attended the reception). She's now a student at Cooper Union, in New York. The Unsmoke show came about because she knows the brother of Zoe McCloskey, the young Pittsburgh-based artist whose large-scale prints made up the balance of this two-artist show called No Longer Disturbing, Beneath the Paper Thin Surface. (It runs just through Thu., April 2, with hours by appointment only; 937-371-1986 or unsmoke@gmail.com.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Nipoti at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 24, 2009 at 8:25 PM

Mark Southers' new play brought to mind a coupleof films I'd seen recently. Like Clint Eastwood's GranTorino and Phillippe Faucon's Dans La Vie, the playdescribed a culture clash. In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays aracist retired Detroit autoworker living next to a Hmong family.Dans La Vie, an excellent French film that screened at thePittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival, depicted bonding between anelderly Jewish woman and older ethnic Arab woman.

Southers' play, like the earlier installment inthis busy local theater-maker's Culture Clash series, focusedon one facet of a conflict that to Americans seems at least asintractable, if not older than, modern Arab-Israeli tensions: theone between African-Americans and people of European descent, hereItalian-Americans.

Somewhat like Gran Torino, I Nipoti ("TheNephews") starts as comedy, though it actually careensfurther, into outright farce. Two men, a pizza-shop-owner and thecousin he employs, have hidden their elderly and seemingly comatoseItalian-immigrant uncle in a nursing home in hopes of extracting hisfamily-secret sauce recipe. But while Gran Torino'sredemptive second act is driven by the threat of violence, INipoti looks for a bittersweet, even gentle resolution.

The play has its faults. Moreso than Southers'first two Culture Clash plays, Hoodwinked and JamesMcBride, it spools out long lectures about racism that bring thenarrative to a screeching halt. But it finds its own artisticredemption in some nice touches. One's a smart act-one sightgag in which one of the nephews, Nico, panics because he thinks theleg he's preparing to massage (to improve circulation) is hisuncle's, discolored by a blood clot; instead, the limbsuddenly proves that of Obadiah, a nursing-home resident who, likethe facility's staff, is African-American.

The splendid Tony Bingham, as Nico, and the wonderfulKevin Brown, as Obadiah, make comic hay with the scene. But it'salso a clever way to point out the arbitrariness of using skin colorto classify people.

Later, Southers explores the point in further sceneswith Nico and Obadiah. Nico, kindhearted but kind of slow, says,"You're white and I'm black. It's as simpleas that." But of course it's not. Plenty of folks ofMediterranean ancestry called "white" are darker thanmany of the people we call "black."

With their humanist values, and a tendency towardearnestness, culture-clash narratives can feel old-fashioned. Butwork like Gran Torino (which is really an urban Western), theincisive, fast-paced Dans La Vie and the sometimes poignant,sometimes raucously funny I Nipoti prove you can make yourpoint while entertaining, too.

 

I Nipoti continues through Sun., March 29. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The New Yinzer Presents

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2009 at 1:53 PM

If you can drop by a reading series almost at random and hear something really good, chances are that series is doing something right.

I'd heard that this monthly series, at Garfield's ModernFormations Gallery, hosted good stuff: It's three writers (mostly poetry and fiction), plus a short musical performance, plus a potluck option that waives the $5 entry fee if you bring something tasty.

But while the biggest name at the March 18 installment was Baltimore-based novelist Michael Kimball, I thought the highlight was a short story by Kelly Ramsey. I didn't catch the title, but it was one of those stories, not realistic but set in a universe slightly to the left of our own, whose matter is communicated not just by its narrative, but by its very premise.

The story described a woman having a phone conversation with her ex while occupying the roof of their building, where she had (somehow) relocated all of their furniture. The tension was in the counterpoint between the plain, almost mundane dialogue and the rising action, which involved various furnishing hurtling -- silently, and apparently of their own accord -- over the roof's edge.

Somewhat in the Donald Barthelme vein, I thought -- a nice combination of surrealism and deadpan humor, with a poetic emotional undercurrent. Ramsey, an MFA student at Pitt, is a former co-editor of Hot Metal Bridge literary mag.

New Yinzer Presents is one of many events, regularly scheduled and otherwise, hosted by this online magazine (www.newyinzer.com) that for seven years has been a valuable part of the local literary scene. March was "Small Press Month," with wares for sale in the back from local literary entrepreneurs.

Contributors and organizers on-hand included Jessica Fenlon, Kristofer Collins and Scott Silsbe. Kimball read from his new novel Dear Everybody (Alma Books), structured as a series of undelivered letters written from childhood on by a depressive weatherman who committed suicide. The music was by Colin Baxter and his combo. (Full disclosure: two CP types were also implicated, including staffer Andy Mulkerin, who read his poetry, and art reviewer Savannah Guz, who MC'd.)

The seating includes couches, and there's art on the walls. It's a fair bet for the fourth Wednesday night of the month.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ron Padgett at the International Poetry Forum

Posted By on Fri, Mar 13, 2009 at 11:55 AM

Padgett is a fine, venerable and very funny poet from New York City who read at the Carnegie Lecture Hall. But it was impossible to attend this March 11 event without recalling the Forum's own impending demise -- which seemed almost emphasized by the fact that neither Padgett nor Forum founder Sam Hazo made any formal mention of it.

They didn't have to. Everyone present knew that Hazo, citing the harsh funding climate, had said in February that this 43rd season of hosting world-class poets would be the Forum's last. That makes it the city's first major, established arts group to fall victim to the Recessepression. But other arts news this week, here and elsewhere, was similarly grim.

On Monday, the Pittsburgh Symphony laid off nine administrative staffers. The week also brought big layoffs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- which cut 74 positions, with more likely to come -- and the demise of groups including the 58-year-old Baltimore Opera and the 40-year-old Madison Repertory Theatre (that sizable Wisconsin's town's only pro theater troupe).

Adding to the pall over Padgett's reading: A friend I ran into was mourning the death of a loved one. Hazo then announced the death of Albert Labriola, an old colleague at Duquesne University. And Padgett described one new poem he read as an "elegy" for a friend who'd died in January.

The audience of about 100 for a relatively big name like Padgett seemed small compared to other Forum readings I'd attended, and you had to wonder whether some people in the community believed that Hazo had actually cancelled the season; I guess we'll see on April 14, when both season and series truly conclude, with a reading by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.

Given all that, it was a testament to Padgett that his soft-spoken delivery of his wry, sometimes surreal verse drew as many laughs as it did.

Padgett, thin, balding and wire-rimmed, performs his poetry entertainingly. "Good thing bedrooms can't talk," goes one line, which he follows by dropping into a portentously gruff Ghost Voice: "Many years ago, in this very room ..."

He described one long poem as "99 pieces of advice," adding, "I couldn't think of a hundred!" Samples: "Make eye contact with a tree ... When you are old, be kind to children. Do not shake your cane at them when they call you grandpa. They are your grandchildren!"

A riff on similes went, in part: "At any moment, the similes can line up to form the log cabin Lincoln was said to have built with his own similes."

The occasional word of French aside, Padgett is quite accessible, even his strangest flights grounded in the everyday. At the same time, he's hardly lightweight. A meditation on human meanness includes lines like "The pointlessness of matter turns us into cornered animals that are otherwise placid and indifferent" and "Compassion is an exit from the prison each moment is."

Another favorite line is cunningly metaphysical: "Every moment is another line you're next in."

Musing in another poem about New York tourists, Padgett read: "People go to see the missing Twin Towers, and seem to enjoy experiencing the lack of something." But I doubt we'll feel the same about the International Poetry Forum when it's gone.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Giant Daffodils in Schenley Plaza

Posted By on Wed, Mar 11, 2009 at 12:45 PM

I've seen these sculptures a couple times -- by night, like you're supposed to -- and I'm still trying to find some redeeming value in them, or some evidence they're worth whatever they cost the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

There's five of the things, 16-foot-tall sculptures of flowers. They're best visible from Forbes Avenue, in a pair and a cluster of three, the leaves and stems lit green, with yellow-and-orange heads.

The sculptures, by Louis Emmel Ornamental Iron, of Coraopolis, were lit in mid-February, and loom over the plaza's still-dormant flower beds. The Conservancy means them to advertise the Pittsburgh Daffodil Project, a collaboration with the Penn State University Cooperative Extension and the City of Pittsburgh to plant "millions of daffodil bulbs" in these parts in the years to come.

The planting project itself sounds fine. Flowers, I'm told, are pretty, and the Conservancy says new daffodils in Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley parks (for starters) should reduce the need to mow, while the mulch in the beds will benefit nearby trees. Thanks to volunteer labor, more than 12,000 bulbs had been planted by mid-February, 7,500 of them along Bartlett Street, in Schenley.

You'd think that many flowers, once they blossomed, would be sufficient adverstisements for themselves. But here are these extraterrestrial entities, rather awkwardly greeting passersby and visitors to the Forbes-Bigelow intersection's high concentration of cultural amenities.

They look, I'm sorry to say, pretty tacky. The Conservancy deserves praise for creating the Plaza itself; it's a vast improvement over the bleak parking lot that stood there for years, and it's come into its own as a venue for performances, summer movie screenings, community events and simply hanging out. But remember that ridiculous "Pittsburgh Roars" campaign a few years back, and the huge inflatable creatures that appeared all over town (most of them listing drunkenly)? If I recall correctly, the one in Schenley Plaza looked like a buck deer sitting on the toilet. What is it about this poor Plaza that makes people want to improve it with lowest-common-denominator art?

Unlike a Claes Oldenburg clothespin, the daffodils aren't conceptual enough to provoke. And all lit up like that, they don't even have the decency to simply fade into the background, like those life-sized magnolia-tree sculputres Downtown, at Seventh and Penn. I guess if you're going to be as gauche as a Christmas display, you might as well be assertive about it.

I'm glad, at least, that the lights on the daffodils are energy-efficienct LEDs. That way, the real flowers might come a little closer to sequestering the greenhouse gasses being emitted to keep their faux avatars brightly twinkling through April.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Arts Funding Cuts and the Media

Posted By on Fri, Mar 6, 2009 at 3:33 PM

It was an odd moment at a March 3 community forum called "The Arts in Tough Economic Times." Bob Hoover, the Post-Gazette book-page editor who was covering the event for the paper, stood and addressed the 160 attendees, who represented several dozen local organizations.

Hoover acknowledged what many in the audience have privately complained about for weeks: "We are cutting back on coverage of the arts." He cited a lack of space in the P-G, which like most other print publications has shrunk recently, largely due to the economy. Unacknowledged were staffing cutbacks: With key P-G veterans like theater critic Chris Rawson and dance critic Jane Vranish taking buyouts, the paper has noticeably scaled back coverage of live arts (with Hoover himself among those filling the gap by pitching in on the drama desk).

Hoover asked attendees at this Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council event for their ideas "to help the newspaper cover your organizations better." He suggested, for instance, more use of online resources, and the establishment of a "partnership to share information" between the paper and the groups. (No one immediately responded with any additional ideas.)

It felt a little weird for Hoover to take an active role in a meeting he was covering. (He co-wrote, with art critic Mary Thomas, the article about the meeting in the next day's P-G.) But even weirder was the almost palpable shift of power in this Benedum Center meeting room: The P-G, whom arts groups are used to petitioning for coverage, was asking them for help -- at a public forum where they had come, presumably, because they were having trouble making ends meet to begin with.

City Paper, of course, is scarcely immune from the demographic, technological and economic trends that have knocked daily and weekly papers back on their heels, and in some cases out of existence. (RIP, Rocky Mountain News.) But unlike the P-G, CP has never been the region's putative paper of record -- the one that reviewed nearly every performance and exhibit, and previewed all the big ones. Smaller to begin with, we weeklies have always had to pick our spots; lowered page counts mean we just have to pick them a little more carefully, and try to do more with less. Part of the equation has always been us knowing the P-G was there to give everything at least a nod. With that gone, the math looks a lot more unfamiliar.

It's great that the P-G recognizes the role the arts play, and the role the paper plays in keeping the arts vibrant. Among the many things that no one knows yet is how the shrinkage of in-depth and critical coverage of the arts will affect the scene.

At the March 3 meeting, GPAC's Mitch Swain followed Hoover to add that arts groups had already met with P-G editor David Shribman to discuss the situation. Swain said GPAC would hold another public forum, this one about "media and marketing," in a month.

Monday, March 2, 2009

No Child ... at Open Stage Theatre

Posted By on Mon, Mar 2, 2009 at 8:09 AM

This show's title suggests it assails an especially reviled piece of school legislation, Bush's No Child Left Behind. But the script critiques mostly by inference. Rather, as director David Maslow said in an interview before the show's run began, it's a play about an actor on a stage. And as that one-woman cast herself, Rita Gregory, said, it's also about giving voice to a bunch of neglected inner-city high school students who wouldn't be so privileged otherwise.

Gregory was apparently the first solo actor, other than New York-based playwright Nilaja Sun herself, to portray all 16 characters. But any doubts the audience had that a 53-year-old actor could play a teacher half her age, and a bunch of teen-agers besides, quickly evaporated: While this was fast-paced storytelling, the array of gesture and vocalisms Gregory deployed to create a classroom all by herself might have been engrossing enough without a story.

Though Ms. Sun (the character) voiced criticisms of a society that had forgotten its children, the script concentrates on what happens inside the classroom's walls. Sun (the script is based on the playwright's personal experiences) is a "teaching artist" rallying the kids in the Bronx to stage Our Country's Good, a contemporary play about some 18th-century Australian convicts staging a still-older play. Implicit is the lack of cultural enrichment in the students' lives, but you have to really read between the lines to discern there's a federal law being pilloried.

Moreover, despite its play-within-a-play-within-a-play structure, No Child ... is quite simple as narrative (and, as CP contributor Ted Hoover pointed out in his review, essentially devoid of irony). But its considerable humanity derives no less from the intimacy of the theatrical experience than from Gregory, who after the Feb. 19 performance talked with the audience about the show.

Gregory knows kids as a mother and as head of the junior-high stage program at Pitt's Falk School. But she drew her characterizations from numerous sources, modeling the school's principal on a woman diner in a GEICO commercial, for instance, and borrowing one female student's distinctive vocal clicks from film actress Rosie Perez.

Still, all her craft wouldn't have meant much if it didn't ultimately point away from the performer and toward the characters performed. A couple of Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers who sat behind me said after the show that Gregory had "nailed it" -- both the kids and what it's like to work with them.

But I was especially moved by two moments in the play (which closed Feb. 22). In one, earnest Sun tells a colleague, "These kids are me: Brown skin, brown eyes -- stuck." It's a nice moment of empathy, but I think Sun (and Gregory) topped it with the scene where one tough-guy student, who's been seemingly disinterested, recites for Sun a long passage of dialogue he's memorized. The teacher is stunned; the kid, obviously proud, says, "I do my thing" -- making the assignment a choice, an act of self-determination that cements his dignity for the audience, the teacher, and himself.

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