Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mary Mazziotti's "Domestic Death"

Posted By on Thu, Jul 30, 2009 at 2:42 PM

Because Americans frequently think about death only in terms of consumer products (funerals, tombstones, caskets), Mazziotti's cheekily direct approach in this little show at Lawrenceville's Borelli-Edwards Gallery is especially notable. Using humble embroidery, she's repurposed kitschy vintage domestic linens – most, I'd guess, from the middle 1900s -- as medieval-style reminders of mortality. Call it her bridge to the 17th century. (She was, after all, inspired by "Death Crier" engravings of the era.)

Mostly, Mazziotti does this by artfully stitching in death's heads, and other skeleton parts, into existing scenes. Thus, on "Baby Quilt," a chubby puppy's thought balloon houses Death himself; a teddy bear blowing a horn looks warily over his shoulder, where merry Death mirrors him. As it says along the hem of the little pink dress in the gallery's front window, just below the skull with knife and fork: "Time Devours All."

Zelig-like, Death pops up everywhere in these pieces, most displayed as wall-hangings. On a pair of Elvis pillowcases, the King (looking, one must admit, a little hydroencephalic) wails away with a white-pompadoured skeleton backup singer (skinnier than any Jordanaire) cavorting over his shoulder. "1935-1977," indeed. On another piece, a butterfly and caged bird take on new meaning when the big pocket watch between them sports a skeleton sitting merrily astride its hands.

Mazziotti plays especially well with the line between the thunderous foreboding and the playfulness of all this iconography, fairly summoning the carefree-cum-doomed spirit of her Dark Ages inspirations. "No man knows where the castle of King Death is," goes the inscription on a crimson cocktail dress. A little white sailor suit, embroidered with Death as a mermaid: "The sea is other-death and she is a mighty female the one who wins, the one who sucks us all up."

Mazziotti's technique is deceptively simple: It never becomes a one-liner. That's partly due to her sense of craft, the new ways she keeps finding to incorporate Death into these found objects. In "Dancing Peasants," for instance, a repeated floral pattern becomes a kicky red-and-green headpiece for a circuit of skulls.

Perhaps better still, she plays off the innocent (ignorant?) reference points of the kitsch works' originators. Interestingly, the technique is somewhat less comical when used in reference to cultures more distant from ours in time and space. Newly decked with bony denizens, the tablecloth "Mexico" (quite independently of the intentions with which it might have been purchased) can't help recalling that country's ongoing Day of the Dead celebration. Likewise with a Victorian-era barroom scene, and even an Old West-themed apron ("Chuckwagon"): We can imagine people of those times feeling closer to mortality, more cognizant of it -- as though by learning how to postpone death a little (or perhaps just to deny it a little more loudly), we had actually banished it.

Mazziotti (whose studio is in Lawrenceville, too) has long explored this topic. The first such exhibit I recall was a haunting piece (it was at Future Tenant, I think) that, also employing linens, recontextualized century-old photos of unclaimed corpses from the Allegheny County morgue. More in line with the newest offering, her contribution to the last-but-one Carnegie International was an hilarious comic strip starring Death.

The Borelli-Edwards show formally closes Sat., Aug 1 (though the owner says that after the gallery's week-long summer break, it will be viewable again in mid-Augst). Its kicker is Mazziotti's "Homage to Damien Hirst," a series of model skulls decked out in costume jewlery. The baubles dripping from the eyesockets, like the tears of a repentant dying miser, are an especially nice touch nodding to the artist who once made a jeweled creation that fetched the highest price for an artwork ever. Sic transit, Damien baby.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

State Arts Funding Crisis

Posted By on Tue, Jul 21, 2009 at 10:03 AM

If you've been following the arts portion of the state budget debate, it finally appears to have come down to brass tacks -- if you haven't spoken out, arts advocates say, now's the time.

Last night, the Republican-controlled State Senate approved a version of the budget which includes no funding for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The PCA's funding of groups and individual artists is important, but as the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council notes, it goes beyond that: No PCA funding would also mean cuts in National Endowment for the Arts funding, which only materializes with matching funds from state arts agencies.

This is an especially bad time for the arts locally, with ticket sales down, grants down and funding from the Allegheny Regional Asset District down due to declines in sales-tax revenue. The loss of PCA funding would critically injure many arts groups, forcing layoffs and program cutbacks.

The budget bill, HB 1416, is now before the State House. GPAC and other arts advocates are urging people to contact their legislators to tell them to "nonconcur" with HB 1416 as amended. This will give arts supporters a chance to restore some $14 million in PCA funding (a tiny fraction of the overall budget). But the vote is coming soon, so call today.

To find contact info for your legislator, see Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania's Legislative Action Center at Type in your ZIP code in the box at the top of the page.

For more information, contact the GPAC or e-mail

Monday, July 20, 2009

T'ing and Biking to Steve Earle at South Park

Posted By on Mon, Jul 20, 2009 at 3:47 PM

The county's free summer concerts, especially those at Hartwood Acres and South Park, are great amenities. But I've gone to relatively few, at least in part because I hate driving that far, then sitting in traffic to park, sitting in traffic to leave, and burning all that gas besides.

Last Friday's Steve Earle concert gave me an excuse to try out a new-to-me way. A companion and I loaded our bikes on the T, got off at the Lytle stop, then peddled to the amphitheater to see the politically outspoken singer-songwriter do a solo show.

It worked pretty well. You do have to schedule carefully: You can't bring your bike on the T during rush hour, for instance, and cyclists can disembark only at certain stations (the high-platform ones). But, leaving the Gallery Crawl early, we caught the first post-rush-hour train out of Downtown's Wood Street Station, at 6:30 p.m., and were sitting on the amphitheater's rain-dampened lawn by 7:30.

Yup, we got soggy on the rainy, 15-minute bike ride from Lytle to the amphitheater -- though the rainbow that greeted us at the park entrance compensated. And the uphill on the way home was a bear at 10 p.m. But I'd do it again, whether for another concert or just to tool around the park. Especially because I suspect a more southerly T stop -- perhaps even the end of the line, at Library -- might be closer to the amphitheater itself without sacrificing nearness to a park entrance (which is desirable because South Hills roads aren't especially bike-friendly).

All told, it didn't take much longer than driving there from my home on the South Side, though T fare for two ($10.40 round trip) was somewhat pricier than the gallon of gas it would have taken us to get there.

Oh, yeah, Earle was pretty good, too. I'd seen him before only with a band; solo, he's rough and ready on acoustic six-string, harmonica and mandolin, with an agreeably bearish stage presence. Fresh off his tribute album for Townes Van Zandt, he played several of his songwriting hero's numbers, including "Colorado Girl" and "Pancho and Lefty." He did spirited versions of his own stuff: "Galway Girl," "Someday," "Fort Worth Blues."

Two-thirds of the way in to a 90-minute-plus set, Earle talked politics some, with a qualified "hurrah" for Obama and a word against the oxymoron that is "clean coal," followed by an anti-mountaintop-removal song. (Crafted, like most of his work, as a story rather than a screed.) And there was a passionate rendition of his moving antiwar number "Jerusalem." The encore was a rousing "Guitar Town" -- he said it was probably the first song he ever played in Pittsburgh, opening for George Jones at the Syria Mosque, in 1986 -- and his hit "Copperhead Road." 

Friday, July 17, 2009

Les Mis: An uplifting uprising

Posted By on Fri, Jul 17, 2009 at 9:06 AM

I'd never seen Les Misérables before Tuesday night, but I brought a seven-show vet to the Benedum with me, who dished out the following nugget of Les Mis zealotry as we took our seats:

"If you don't like this, you're seriously not even human."

I did like Les Mis very much, though not so much for its representations of personal tragedy that my friend was no doubt referring to. The solo performances were indeed captivating (especially Robert Cuccioli's portrayal of Javert's sad obsession with law and order), but what really did it for me was the artfully organized chaos of the mob scenes.

As Les Mis is set in revolutionary France, the musical supplies plenty of packed-stage rioting and revelry, but there were three numbers that I thought the CLO ensemble pulled of with especially ferocious aplomb.

"Lovely Ladies"

This number took all the grime and glamor of 19th century prostitution and raised it to a colossal exponent -- a feat that's even more impressive when you consider they did it with clothes on. The song was a kind of see-saw "duet" between the titular females and their boorish pimps, wherein the raunchy thrusts of a half-dozen couples obeyed the swells and dips in the orchestration. Apparently, sex-on-the-street-corner is, somewhat paradoxically, even filthier when well-choreographed.

"Master of the House"

Overly-stylized choreography can sometimes infringe on a scene's verisimilitude, especially if that scene happens to unfold in a sleazy inn full of drunk peasants. But Barry Ivan (who directs as well as choreographs) found the perfect intersection of synchronicity and sloppy here. Thénardier (Tim Hartman) stood on a chair and did a pompous knee bend as his inn guests wove and stumbled below him.

"Red and Black"

Poor Marius (Mathew Scott). He finds love at first sight just as revolutionary fervor hits the boiling point in Paris. If this happened in real life, Marius might have told a few friends who might have given him sympathetic pats on the back, but this is Les Mis, where, instead, his buddies have booming and sonorous voices and join him in an incendiary celebration-cum-lament about love and war.

(Les Miserables runs through July 19.)


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