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Dylan Vitone explores display and voyeurism in The Miami Project

click to enlarge Meat and greet: Dylan Vitone's "bodybuilders" (detail) (2009).
  • Meat and greet: Dylan Vitone's "bodybuilders" (detail) (2009).

From the first time I saw Dylan Vitone's artwork, it seemed something new. Vitone photographs street-level urban panoramas, and constructs his finished large-scale images out of frames spliced together horizontally. While he keeps the "seams" visible, the frames remain closely linked in time and space -- all from the same intersection, for instance. Thus he both explores and creates relationships between his subjects, the viewer and himself.

It's not strictly photojournalism. But what Vitone's approach surrenders in documentary reliability it more than recoups in immediacy and insight.

Vitone's first Pittsburgh show, in 2004 at the Silver Eye Center, traversed working-class streets in South Boston. Since moving here, he'd mostly continued in that vein until his Emerging Artist of the Year show, at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. There, Vitone's The Miami Project tackles instead the culture of display in a city that's made it a specialty.

What most viewers will recall about the show are Vitone's most hyped -- and most hypersexualized -- subjects: bikini models, male body-builders and the denizens of porno conventions. Indeed, these folks constitute most of the show and evoke its key themes, in appropriately attention-grabbing archival inkjet prints up to 7 feet long and usually less than a foot high.

"Bikini models in a hall" (hung in the gallery's own entry hall) sets the tone. In an anonymous building that Vitone's splicing has turned into impossibly angled space, a dozen painted and polished women strut in absurd soft-core costumes: jockey, referee, paintball warrior. Most face the camera, or gaze outside the frame, at unseen onlookers. Meanwhile, a photographer (Vitone himself), camera in hand, crouches gnomishly behind a pane of glass at frame right, reminding us of our (and his) voyeurism.

Vitone's subjects often play to the photographer. But the men in "bodybuilders" are locked in a peculiar kind of staring contest, surreally puffed competitors and decidedly mortal shooters alike. It's a symbiotic kind of narcissism, made more humorous by the chairs in the background all draped in plastic (to deflect all that body oil, presumably).

We expect narcissism, of course, from models and bodybuilders, but Vitone gets deeper. In "porn star on a table," he's spliced his images to maximize the number of lenses ogling the nearly nude title subject. All the cameras are wielded by men -- a leering lot whose presence challenges us to find the middle ground between Puritan disapproval and voyeurism disguised as art appreciation.

Yet Vitone's frames are packed not just with spectacle, but also humanity, like the heavyset middle-aged woman in "bikini models on steps," for example. She's a mother, we guess, and she looks upon the models concerned, a pair of jeans neatly folded under one arm.

Such images are uniformly compelling, but if I've a criticism of the show, it's that there's only so much to say about remunerative self-display. Vitone does provide a few contrapuntal images -- "graffitti writers," for instance -- that suggest lives more creative. And he experiments with a series of verticals, like the "diving off bridge," whose central diver (catch the black socks!) is a sublime image of unselfconscious adolescent joy.

But as in his earlier work, Vitone is most effective with shots of ordinary folks -- many of them, too, infected with the urge to display or watch, rather than do. The bored denizens of "art basel VIP room," so rapturously self-absorbed they'll never connect. The millers-about gawking at arrestees in the day-lit "drug bust." The pathetic pleas for attention of the crowd outside an arena in "american idol," mugging for TV newspeople who've come to watch the people who've come to watch the people.

These teeming frames, the gestures painstakingly captured, carefully selected and arranged, the sense of fun combined with a pitiless regard for human folly: When Vitone hits hardest, he's a latter-day Brueghel with a camera.

 

The Miami Project continues through Nov. 8. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873

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