There may be a "Lost Pittsburgh School" -- one suspects there's more to be mined locally than rusting sculpture and Warhol's former teachers -- but a new exhibit by that name doesn't unearth the missing artworks that its press release claims. What Lost Pittsburgh School, at Unsmoke Systems Artspace, does do is more unexpected because [spoiler alert] the exhibit is a benign hoax of the type that's intended to fool you but not to keep you fooled.
Curated by actor David Conrad -- possibly Pittsburgh's leading non-athlete celebrity -- and with contributions from leading lights in the local cultural scene, the exhibit premises an overlooked conceptual-art movement of the 1970s. It then offers documentation of expanded-field art practices that aren't that far-fetched, including: a suburban shrub-sculptor; surprisingly decorative peel-out tire tracks laid by a confederation of mill-town motorheads; and a performance on roller skates in the snow. Add bios with just-obscure-enough, unGoogleable references -- like a decades-old adjunct teaching position -- leaven with obfuscatory artspeak and, hey, it's admirably clever, though cleverness is not the entire motivation.
The exhibit includes where'd-they-get-'em photographs, books, posters, news clippings and typed letters, along with a couple of putative artworks. It's charming stuff, with Me Decade high school pix, photographs of brownfield detritus and faded Bicentennial-themed fire hydrants, and specially staged scenes of ambiguous relevance. The overall effect is confusing, with muddled boundaries between the alleged artists and only limited explanatory text (plus some QR codes). Lost Pittsburgh School will also be published in book form this fall, with additional fabricated explanatory material that enunciates the project's intentions more clearly.
Lost Pittsburgh masterfully uses parody and ridicule to express disapproval of narrowmindedness, cliquishness, institutional unresponsiveness and other art-world ills. The beauty of the satire is that it criticizes without pointing a finger or naming names. Interestingly, the hoax's bogus agenda and the hidden agenda underlying it are one and the same: a plea for greater recognition of accomplished but less recognized artists working in Pittsburgh. Lost Pittsburgh School sends a love letter to our industrial past and to the creative class of our postindustrial present. The show even includes Saturday presentations by artists, writers and local politicos. (Really!)
THE LOST PITTSBURGH SCHOOL continues through Aug. 27. (Events include a 7 p.m. Sat., Aug. 20, talk featuring photographer Charlee Brodsky and poet Jim Daniels.). Unsmoke Systems Artspace, 1137 Braddock Ave., Braddock. 412-518-9981