Squonk Opera has performed on stages and in a junkyard, at the Three Rivers Arts Festival and on three stories of Downtown parking-lot scaffolding on New Year's Eve. Unlikely props in hand, the high-humored art-rock/performance troupe has recast Greek myth as rodeo, built a show around Night of the Living Dead, dressed its drummer as a giant hand and posed as food on Broadway.
But what is the essence of Squonk when it stops squonking -- or even moving? An answer lies in a show on the fourth floor of The Andy Warhol Museum, with the results of a Heinz Creative Heights artist-residency project by Squonk co-founder Steve O'Hearn.
The front chamber of this two-room multimedia show provides some context, including a projection loop of fast-paced video that Squonk collaborators created for incorporation into past Squonk shows, and a monitor playing promos for this year's Pittsburgh: The Opera and Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk, the 2001 show that the group took to Broadway.
The room also showcases O'Hearn's surreal sculptural sensibility in "bearing island," a hilly landscape crafted entirely from hundreds of gleaming steel spheres and set on the floor (or is it the "Bearing" Strait?).
Then there's the more involved "tiny show": On a miniature gilt proscenium mounted on a wheeled tubular-steel truss, half-inch-tall toy humans are in the process of shedding their red hazmat suits, and the business suits beneath, to perch bunched and naked on a small pedestal backstage, from which they perilously face the gears of a (comparatively huge) apple-peeler. From a nearby red velvet armchair, and with opera glasses hung helpfully at hand, viewers can contemplate the fearful aspects of stagecraft -- and the blandly comfortable aspects of spectatorship.
But it's in the stark back room, supplemented by Warhol's big black-and-white painting "Shadows," that O'Hearn's imagination feels most engaged. First your way is blocked by "between big and small," a 3-D scale model of the Allegheny and Ohio river system, vacuum-cast in stainless steel (and part of a bigger piece originally commissioned for the David L. Lawrence Convention Center). To your left, 12 feet up a bare wall, clings "pipes feeding" -- a set of highland bagpipes with the pipes painted the color spectrum and the bag supplanted by a scaly, similarly hued body that suggests the creature known as the pangolin. Did it climb -- and is it about to pounce?
To your right, also wall-mounted, are "nine smiles, without lips" and "nine more smiles, without lips": twinned, linear arrays of gloriously imperfect and disturbingly realistic teeth, spread flat and set in pink "gums" sandwiched between stainless-steel borders. And straight ahead is the free-standing "blast furnace David." The 6-foot statue consists of a miniature earth-toned blast furnace jutting from a vegetal-green human pelvis (complete with navel), its legs loosely woven from plant roots still dusty with soil.
It's wonderful stuff, whimsically unnerving, nightmarishly playful. The main drawback is that, given Squonk's background in carnivalesque live performance, you feel a slight disappointment that you can't see "pipes" scurry, "smiles" gnash and "david" walk.
Steve O'Hearn: Creative Heights Award Project continues through Dec. 31. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org