The Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center (BMNECC), in Homestead, has spent 75 years preserving the traditions of its ethnic Bulgarian community. The center hosts weekly events ranging from dances and concerts to craft sales, but few Pittsburghers would think of visiting for a look at contemporary art. The exhibition Password Love could help to dispel such preconceptions.
Password Love is a collection of new paintings by contemporary Bulgarian artist Georgi Petrov, depicting an intimate, if nonrepresentational, view of his hometown, Dobrich, Bulgaria. But what makes Password Love particularly worth the commute has little to do with national heritage and much more to do with felicitous space.
In his famous text The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes the felicitous space as "the space we love ... [which] cannot remain indifferent ... [having] been lived in with all the partiality of the imagination." With Password Love, the BMNECC's long-inhabited, multipurpose quarters create an experience defined by imagination, monumentality and the opportunity to interpret art in a unique context.
Petrov's abstract paintings are not only visual artifacts from a place most Americans will likely never see. They also hang in a state of constant flux, simultaneously defined by the viewer's imagination and the building's history. This sense of instability is echoed in works like "My Fields" (2010), alluding to collapsing structures or an unfinished landscape.
Petrov's paintings resist obvious interpretation but provoke dialogue through an analysis of their technique. Works like "Моите полета" fall somewhere between Richard Diebenkorn and Wilhelm Sasnal, featuring surfaces scarred by harsh brushwork or heavy impasto. "Night Dream" resembles a vast, unending landscape overcome by what seems to be a haze of hot radiation. His emphasis on intangible subject matter and indefinite imagery may reflect the uncertainty shared by many Bulgarians about the future of their country.
As a felicitous space, the BMNECC is not your typical "white box." By gallery standards, it lacks sufficient wall space and allows little breathing room between paintings. But what the room lacks in "high art" criteria, it makes up for in historical and conceptual continuity.
As a living cultural monument to Homestead's ethnic Bulgarian community, the BMNECC demands a more intimate relationship with the artwork on display. Provocative paintings like "Redemption" depict the framework of a church overrun by aggressive abstraction, in an evident rebellion against organized religion. Yet "Redemption" thrives in the same dim showroom where generations of devout immigrants were acclimated to life in the United States.
During the 1930s, the BMNECC hosted influential speakers who promoted America's lifestyle of freedom and educated newcomers regarding the cultural differences they would encounter. In the decades that followed, hundreds of similar events helped foster Bulgarian/American pride within the community. These experiences now hang on the walls thicker than any impasto in Petrov's paintings, and create an atmosphere nearly impossible to reproduce in a traditional gallery setting.
Password Love is definitely not the only reason to visit. The center boasts an archive of more than 300 historical Bulgarian artworks and artifacts dating back centuries. One such prize is a collection of 14th- through 19th-century silver jewelry originally owned by a Bulgarian colonel named Mamarchev. The collection, donated by his granddaughter Helen Mamarchev, originated in the mountainous Tsardom region of Bulgaria.
Additionally, the BMNECC's kitchen is a local gem frequented by locals and prepares specialties ranging from traditional soups to the ever-famous shopska salata. Homemade soups -- including Balkan bean, lentil and chicken with farina dumplings -- can be purchased on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. But most patrons prefer to come on Saturday mornings, when they can sit, converse and enjoy a hot meal with friends.
Password Love continues through Jan. 31. Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center, 449 W. Eighth Ave., West Homestead 412-461-6188 or www.bmnecc.org