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Friday, March 27, 2009

Firelei Baez at Unsmoke Art Space

Posted By on Fri, Mar 27, 2009 at 1:50 PM

Unsmoke is likely the area's most memorably situated art gallery: It's housed in a former Catholic grade school in Braddock, right across Braddock Avenue from the gates and smokestacks of U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson works. The building, owned by Braddock Deputy Mayor Jeb Feldman, is home to a budding artists's collective, and is part of Mayor John Fetterman's attempts to revitalize the largely desolate old mill town.

But I wouldn't note all this if the art at Unsmoke weren't usually memorable, too, and that's been the case since the place opened last July. Most prominently, it's hosted teeming group shows and multimedia events -- even once a literary reading that accompanied the debut of a new outdoor wood-fired pizza oven.

The current show opened quieter, on Sat., March 21, and runs shorter. But as long as there's a little wine, it counts as a reception. And the show is plenty engaging on its own terms, particularly large-scale paintings and drawings by young, Brooklyn-based artist Firelei Baez.

One side wall of the gallery (the former school's high-ceilinged rec space) features Baez's amazing graphite renderings of women of different ethnicities, their hair seemingly prone to grooming by small bright birds. (In her artist statement, Baez notes, "In Caribbean folklore any part of the body represents the soul, especially hair. It is necessary to protect one's soul by making sure that any hair that is shed does not wind up in the hands of others. If a bird picks up one's hair and incorporates it into its nest, then the person's soul is placed in limbo.") Along the gallery's back wall, a couple other drawings, which seem to depict close-ups of orgiastic sex, likewise show off her drafting skill.

But Baez's signature is probably her more colorful work, paintings that seem to depict the mutated forms of furry, naked Rubenesque female figures. They are presented, typically, with their backs turned, in stilleto heels, their upper bodies obscured by wreathing foliage. In a variation, a couple works offer similar female forms, only this time disturbingly truncated: nothing below one knee, and a nothing but a coil of rope emanating from the other. The bodies, rendered in riotous tropical watercolors, mesh with abstract, protoplasmic emanations. Another image, somewhat disturbingly, combines reiterations of a well-fleshed leg and hip into a single, somehow larval form.

Baez was born in the Dominican Republic; the mass of black hair adorning some of the figures she paints might be her own (she attended the reception). She's now a student at Cooper Union, in New York. The Unsmoke show came about because she knows the brother of Zoe McCloskey, the young Pittsburgh-based artist whose large-scale prints made up the balance of this two-artist show called No Longer Disturbing, Beneath the Paper Thin Surface. (It runs just through Thu., April 2, with hours by appointment only; 937-371-1986 or unsmoke@gmail.com.)

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