Paul Thek: Diver doesn't just toss Pittsburghers into the deep end of the pool. When you first walk into the Carnegie Museum of Art's retrospective of this complicated artist, you see "Meat Piece With Brillo Box," a work housed in one of Andy Warhol's famed Brillo soap-pad crates. On the wall, meanwhile, runs film footage of Thek himself, looking into the camera for one of Warhol's famous "screen tests."
Inside that Brillo crate, however, is what looks like a tissue sample taken from ... I don't know, a sperm whale or something. It's a deliberately unsettling image, one that subverts the clean, familiar Pop logo that encases it. Still, using Pittsburgh-born Warhol to help with introductions is a sly move by curators Lynn Zelevansky and Elisabeth Sussman. For Thek and Warhol have something else in common: Both were gay artists whose work bore the imprint of their childhood faith.
Warhol took Orthodox icons and stripped much of the content, replacing the Virgin Mary with Marilyn Monroe. Thek, raised a Brooklyn Catholic, did the opposite: His images were deliberately humble, more inscrutable and prone to decay. But the best of them contain powerful spiritual yearnings.
Granted, it might be tough to see that in Thek's "meat pieces," in which facsimile organs and flesh (made from wax, hair and other materials) are housed in minimalist vitrines. But if you think about it, making art from the image of mortal flesh mirrors the effort to locate an eternal soul within our temporal bodies.
But don't expect a reprise of Vatican Splendors. In paintings like "Church of the Holy Molar" (which looks like how it sounds), Thek offers a spirituality by turns playful and despairing. Or take the exhibit's signature image, the painting "Diver." As the curators note, the diver is Thek's alter ego, "delving beneath the surface toward the unknown." But you can't help noticing Thek's diver is anatomically complete: This baptism immerses the whole body. Thek's work grappled with sex and spirituality, and understood each in terms of the other.
Water was, in fact, an obsession. Diver features land- and seascapes saturated in turquoise and Mediterranean blue, often on humble, yellowing newspaper. When it works, the effect is powerful. Thek's "Untitled (Earth Drawing I)," for example, appeared in the 2008 Carnegie International and deserves this second look. A globe floating in a newsprint cosmos, the image combines the everyday and the eternal, much as the planet's inhabitants do.
Other works, though, are hard to see as more than personal devotions: One can look at only so many blue-on-blue seascapes. Thek also painted time-worn credos ("Afflict the comfortable/comfort the afflicted") against colorful abstract backgrounds. But the elegiac tone of these works -- many were made shortly before Thek's 1988 death, from AIDS -- barely rescues them from cliché.
More intriguing is a look at Thek's installation and performance art. Thek was an early adopter of these forms; his best-known efforts include 1967's "The Tomb," which interred a waxen lookalike of the artist inside a pink pyramid. But the exhibit contents itself with displaying surviving props and artifacts, rather than re-creating the works in whole. Much of the material has been lost, and in her catalogue essay, Zelevansky concedes that without "the manifestation of Thek's hand [the works] can never be reconstructed."
Just as well: It's one thing to display hunks of flesh, quite another to try animating a corpse. And some objects here take on lives of their own, like "Fishman in Excelsis," in which a waxen figure hangs face-down below a table suspended from the ceiling, fish teeming around him. The work suggests both drowning and weightlessness, death and rebirth. (Fish are, as Zelevansky notes, symbols from early Christianity.) But stripped of its context, much of Thek's iconography is inscrutable. (He wore chairs as headgear? Why is the stuffed buzzard upside-down?)
This isn't the curators' fault. Diver is a thoughtful exhibit, one that shows Thek's dizzying range, and gives him voice by displaying some of his journals. It even hangs his late-period work close to the floor, as Thek did in his final show.
But enshrining deliberately ephemeral art in a museum's timeless vault isn't easy, and Thek never became a "brand," a la Warhol. Despite some initial fame, he died in relative obscurity; this exhibit, which traveled from New York's Whitney Museum, is his first U.S. retrospective.
Thek's distance from art movements of his day, arguably, helps make him worth looking at now. A work like "Meat Piece With Flies," to take the most obvious example, was decades ahead of the real carcasses exhibited by British provocateur Damien Hirst. And ultimately, Diver suggests we've missed out on an artist with both surface charm and soulful depth.
But despite the best intentions here, and the undeniable power of the "meat pieces," especially, I can't help feel that's precisely the problem: We missed out on him.
Paul Thek: Diver continues through May 1. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org