In the far corner of Downtown's Space Gallery, Josh Bonnet has staked out his territory the old-fashioned way: With a flag spiked into the ground -- or, in this case, painted onto the wall. In a large-group show such as Home/Away, artists often feel compelled to eke out some kind of definitive space, so it's no surprise that flags, bright colors and bold strokes of paint or bulbous objects are the order of the day. And in a show such as this -- rooted in conjoined themes of traversing temporal and physical space, and in a toothy-grinned sense of play -- it's equally unsurprising that Bonnet would choose to proudly stake his claim next to the men's room.
If, as Nicholas Delbanco says, "all writing is travel writing," then Home/Away suggests that all art is similarly themed: that the artist's work demands a journey from whatever "home" is in order to forge some comment on one's self or surroundings. Home/Away's slant is on rediscovering that home, mid-journey. To the 18 artists and groups who've contributed, concepts of home seem rooted as much in generational time as in place -- in pop culture summoned with subtle smirks or blaring fanfares, and more fabulous invocations of American mythology subtly toyed with.
Stephanie Davidson's "Untitled" series of paintings depict just such a concept. These idealized images of idyllic homestead life, somewhere between Little House and Saturday Evening Post, are questioned by an implied darkness: the judgmental flippancy of, say, hand-out Christian comic books, or medieval allegories.
Meanwhile, the duo known as the Dutch Masters (Joshua VanJaymes Tonies and Matthew Vanderbeek Wellins) take on childhood more directly, with a sound installation that attempts to inject time and space into the kindergarten learning process. The installation's listening booth is more immediately striking: With late-'70s/early-'80s headphones made by "Educational Systems Inc.," and a complementary microfiche viewer showing geometric shapes, "Annus Mirabilis" refers not just to "kindergarten," but to these artists' kindergarten, and perhaps to a perceived missed educational opportunity.
There's also, in Home/Away, a more direct sense of nostalgia at work, based largely on such pop-culture reminiscences as the Atari-like retro-videogame images in Ladyboy and Jacob Ciocci's wall installations. Most striking of these nostalgias might be Jesse Hulcher's videos, in which the artist captures the look and feel of rock's pre-MTV promotional films. Retrograde effects, slapped haphazardly over images such as a turntable playing a skipping copy of Bread's Greatest Hits, imply the simplicity with which we were once so impressed. While by no means longing for that simplicity, Hulcher anachronistically sympathizes with it -- with a bit of a smirk.
Home, to most of these artists, is also Pittsburgh, and the city plays a vital role in their work. Jae Ruberto's photos of Lawrenceville and Bloomfield are sometimes exquisite in their composition -- staged efforts side-by-side with happenstance moments. Jen Cooney's paintings, canvases which expand onto the surrounding walls, depict a mythologized, John Kane-inspired Pittsburgh, with a pastoral setting to the west, and a Morlock-infested postindustrial hell to the east.
For this, his first curatorial experiment, artist Thad Kellstadt has assembled a show that's long on participation and energy, if somewhat shorter on focus. Reared on the independent-music scene and the post-punk "do-it-yourself" ethic, these artists thrive in an environment that sheds inhibitions, along with conveniences, associated with Downtown gallery shows. (As the gallery opened one day recently, Kellstadt began his daily ritual of "re-sticking" pieces that had begun peeling off the walls.)
While it's driven by this heady sense of play -- the "open season" of an empty gallery and a benevolent curator -- Home/Away bogs down at times. Corey Antis' stump-like drawings present just such a speed bump. References to tree-ring dating? Blueprints of an also-ran? Will visitors even wonder?
Still, Home/Away presents an engaging Downtown look into an art network often relegated to the "opening-party-only" galleries of Lawrenceville and Garfield. And it does so while keeping intact a vivacious sense of shrugging playfulness.
Home/Away continues through March 10. Space Gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7723