Pittsburgh Center for the Arts is currently exhibiting works by Adam Welch, its 2008 Emerging Artist of the Year. The artist moves forward with authority, exploring one media after another in a show whose work is nonetheless thematically connected. Some are room-sized installations that thrive within the universe contained here; many are strong enough to succeed in any context.
"A paradox of comfort," "Reference (object)," and "..." all are best digested as elements of something larger. The first is an installation crammed with waist-height wooden structures covered in cotton-candy-pink insulation -- rigidity hiding beneath sham softness. The other two both resemble bookshelves. The former (a larger version of which was included in the PCA's recent Biennial) is carved from blue Styrofoam, tantalizing with the promise of knowledge but ultimately proving shallow, vacant and ploddingly mundane. The latter drips with defensive black tar, an octopus aiming ink, and it's kind of disgusting.
These three pieces are tactile and textured, and some viewers might get a yen to touch them. (The Styrofoam felt like Styrofoam. The insulation looked too itchy and the tar too goopy, so were left unmolested.) Regardless of how they might look or feel, all three are nothing but surface, masquerading as stuff of depth. (While the list of works describes "Reference (object)" as incorporating low-frequency speakers, no sound was audible either time this writer visited. Maybe the frequency needs to be higher.)
One singularly whole work is "You can make it," a short video depicting a man emulating Sisyphus. Initially flung into the frame to face-plant in the dirt, he moves from one edge of the screen to the other, with what appears to be an abandoned mill building or warehouse looming in the background. As he goes along his way, it becomes clear that he's moving a weighty rock, and that he is doomed to trip over it and repeat his nosedive with each step. The experience can be applied to pretty much any part of life, and specific interpretation is up to the viewer. But as the video's protagonist is wearing a tie and business casual, this reviewer assumed that he works for the collections department of UPMC.
"A lecture to a cat about the importance of tools to human perseverance" is a mixed-media work on canvas, and one of the few standalone works shown here. It unites splashes and slashes of color with text that alternates between optimism and futility. The words are arranged in brief, cryptic phrases that require us to fill in the blanks: These are notes for the titular address, not the lesson in its entirety. Words like "cat ... piss ... scratching ... poop ..." are featured front and center, while peripheral annotations include references to "medical advancement," "better prices" and "religious dogma." The painting prompts the desire to see a great big gallery show composed of similarly premised work. (If Welch doubts the existence of an audience for further explorations of the feline/human interface, a quick scan of icanhazcheezeburger.com should put his mind to rest.)
Also worthy of further life, and a fine inclusion to any future group show, is "Black Projection." This enameled projection screen encapsulates states of being and their causes, actions and possible results in bubbles diagramming pessimism. "Talking to someone you like" leads to "sweating," "my dog" is linked to "piss on floor," "sugar" takes us straight to "health problems." Nothing seems to lead to happiness, but bits like "it's all about me" and "cranky pants" impart enough self-awareness by the artist to indicate we don't need to take it all so seriously.
This show defines Welch as someone to watch. We can't wait to see what he does next.
Emerging Artist of the Year Adam Welch continues through Nov. 2. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873