The 50th Three Rivers Arts Festival | Program Notes
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Monday, June 8, 2009

The 50th Three Rivers Arts Festival

Posted By on Mon, Jun 8, 2009 at 9:31 AM

It was hard to fully grasp how much different last year's renovations had made Point State Park's "big lawn" until I saw, early on the festival's first night, even a few people inhabiting it. Hours before The Black Keys packed the grass out in front of the Hilton with a blistering set of blues-rock, the handful of folks lounging there with $9 fajitas suggested a scale the place couldn't manage when the old "moat" was still in place.

It's too bad those recreated walls of the historic Fort Pitt redoubt are gone. But in a city where grand old structures disappear for the sake of parking lots, I guess we should be grateful that at least this time we got something in return: a nice new civic space.

The festival, newly scaled down under the new proprietorship of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, seemed to go pretty smoothly on its first weekend; there weren't even any of the traditional baptismal thunderstorms. Here's a sample of festival exhibits:

  • 707 Penn Gallery has a cool show by the f295 photography group, all images made with pinhole cameras and other historic or alternative photo procesess;
  • the Three Rivers Arts Festival Gallery Co-op hosts a vibrant showcase of work from 12 local galleries, from the Silver Eye Center for Photography to moxie DaDA;
  • the raw space at 929 Penn houses Collective Works, a "bring-and-hang" show of work by some 90 Associated Artists of Pittsburgh members, including Elizabeth Castonguay's oil painting "Solitary Confinement ... Huang Xiang," a stunning portrait of the dissident Chinese poet and former Pittsburgher; and
  • "De-Tranquilizers," a exhibit of work by locals curated by the Warhol's Eric C. Shiner, in storefronts at 925 and 927 Penn. The title seems a sly dig at the Festival's reputation for mainstream art; in any case, it's good to see stuff like painter Fabrizio Gerbino's familiar ochres, yellow and grays put to more abstract use; Gregory Witt's delightfully useless machine of functioning gears made of pink foamboard insulation; and the installation, complete with short video documentary, on local "yoganatrix" Lilith Bailey-Kroll.

Another favorite was Sarver's Bait & Tackle, the storefront at 905 Penn that former Tom Museum proprietor Tom Sarver (back for the summer from grad school) turned into a homage to fishing.

One wouldn't think that Sarver's outsider-art-style paintings could be confused with an actual bait shop. Yet Sarver says that even while he was building the show, guys would stop in off the street thinking it was the real thing. At Friday's opening night, he told me, "People come in and they say, ‘Tell me where to fish around here.'" And a friend I ran into at the Black Keys show, who describes his father as the most serious fisherman he knows, said the old man had excitedly told him, just that day, of the new bait shop he'd seen on Penn.

Is there a pent demand for this service Downtown? A Cultural District fishing emporium – that would be a fine legacy for the Arts Festival.

On the other hand, I was a little disappointed with the Three Rivers Arts Festival Retrospective (907 Penn). While the exhibit included new works by the reputable likes of Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, the title had led me to expect a look back at the fest's history of art work -- not just a wall display of 50 years of festival program cover. Still, said display had its retro charms, as did a wallfull of old news clippings (1977 headline: "Three Rivers Festival: Was It Arty?"). There were also old-school slide carousels for your hands-on review of four decades of photos of performers and audiences.

I also missed, more than I thought I would, the big outdoor sculpture or installation of the sort that had been the calling card of many a previous festival, but which the Trust lacked the time and money to commission after taking over the institution from the Carnegie just a few months ago. Things like those crazy stick structures that filled one end of the park in 2003 really brought the room together, as they might have said in The Big Lebowski.

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