Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, January 29, 2010

Adam Welch at 709 Penn

Posted By on Fri, Jan 29, 2010 at 3:17 PM

Local artist and curator Welch's show at the Downtown storefront gallery is titled A Few Objects -- On a Theme of Contradiction, but the term "objects" doesn't really do these works justice.

Contraptions, microverses or perhaps "phenomenological gadgets with cryptic narrative overtones" would be more appropriate.

Several of them are packed into the small Pittsburgh Cultural Trust venue. One is "Finding Order," a large-scale abstract painting on an old-fashioned, window-shade-style home-movie screen. It appears to have constellations marked on it, and holes punched to let through the illumination from a light source behind.

The most amusing is "Fucking Archetypes," which consists in part of a short painter's ladder, a motor, a mechanical arm that terminates in a purple dildo, and a large piece of sheet metal suspended vertically. Every few minutes at last week's gallery crawl, the seemingly inanimate device alarmed patrons by leaping to life, the motor inducing the arm to pummel the metal with the dildo, making a sound like, uh ... thunder.

(Welch is fond of such intermittent sonic eruptions: Visitors to the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts might recall his room-sized library made entirely -- books, shelves and all -- out of blue foam, which was also intermittently animated, make to vibrate to an otherworldly piped-in noise.)

Other items incorporated into the "Archetypes" scenario include a yellow lifejacket, a tall plexiglass cylinder half-full of water, and a red light.

Still, my favorite work in the show was the most object-like. "A Relationship of Command" sat in the middle of the floor, consisting of a sort of earthen obelisk laying on its side, one end cupped in a fallen wheelbarrow whose wooden undercarriage bristled with 20 arrows. The title suggests an allegory of social power structures. But my first impressions was that some Olympian child has swept a dried-mud prism from its heavenly play-table, only to have it plunge nose-first into a terrestrial wheelbarrow ... at the precise moment that the blameless barrow was attacked by vindictive archers, whose feathered missiles struck just before it toppled. At long intervals, the work also emits a high-pitched hum. Inscrutable, yet fascinating.

Welch was Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' 2008 Emerging Artist of the Year. He's now a full-time curator at the PCA. His newest show as curator, a big group exhibition titled Cluster, opens there with a reception on Fri., Feb. 5.

A Few Objects runs at 709 Penn through Feb. 19.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

There Is No End To More

Posted By on Sun, Jan 24, 2010 at 10:55 AM

Jeremy Wade's There Is No End To More begins with a bravura bit of seeming nonsense. It's a movement piece: performer Jared Gradinger, occupying an essentially bare stage last night at the New Hazlett Theater, danced to a voiceover narration that seemed collaged from scraps of a half-dozen or more of the futuristic candy-coated superhero fantasies familiar from Japanese cartoons.

The narration was a stream-of-consciousness tumble of polyethylene surrealism and cut-and-paste pseudonarrative. "I'm covered in rain and electrical bolts of energy," said the voice -- unsettlingly, an adult male voice adopting the whispery hush of a child telling a story under the bedsheets.. "My horse can suddenly talk to me. ... I'm falling through the folds in space. I have a magic ring."

Gradinger sometimes quivered, sometimes creeped; mimicked flight (on his belly, back arched, arms thrust forward); postured defiantly. Danger threatened. A team of heroes was vaguely formed. Rainbows figured prominently.

This prologue was followed by sort of a nightmare version of a children's TV show titled There Is No End To More. Gradinger, a dark-haired, dark-bearded young guy in large round spectacles, played the host. The "show" was composed largely of Gradinger attempting to educate an unseen group of children about a series of issues: "puberty class," "diversity," "government." But the kids (voiced with breathless precision by Gradinger himself) took over the discussion with their non sequiturs, questions, factoids and half-formed impressions. The "family" discussion is transformed when one kid asks, "What if your mom used to be a boy?"

With an increasingly cacophonous soundtrack and a mad mix of video projections on the set's back wall -- Flash-style animations of cats, black-and-white cartoons suggesting anime -- the show's host is quickly overwhelmed by the show.

There Is No End, part of The Andy Warhol Museum's typically provocative Off the Wall performance series, is a collaboration between numerous artists. Wade, who directed, conceived the work while on a commission in Japan to research the phenomenon of Kawaii (or "cute") culture. With cartoons from Japan; current events from the U.S.; and magazine images from Europe, however, There Is No End's dark take addresses any consumer society. 

A series of brief, interpolated lectures on the perils of consumerism (delivered by a deep, distorted male voice accompanying magazine furniture ads) helps make clear that the general idea of There Is No End is to critique our culture of sensory overload and its buy-happiness ethos.

Wade and company also seemed to say that in an increasingly complex and ubiquitously commercialized world, kids grow up confused, and that commercial interests exploit these anxieties in selfp-perpetuating ways. A longing for inclusion in one of those TV-perfect families, for example, can be fulfilled only through equally merchandized fantasies of TV-perfect superhero teams.

Near the show's end, the consumerism lecturer described a black lacquered end table pictured in an IKEA-like ad as the embodiment of malevolence, even as the onscreen table grew a black hole that sucked in several cartoon characters. The sequence, willfully hyperbolic, baffled me. Then I realized that Wade and company were proposing that as adults, we merely subsume the childhood anxieties we escaped through fantasy into the purchase of household furnishings.

The full house at the New Hazlett might have been a bit shell-shocked by the show's sound and fury, but surely everyone left with plenty to talk about.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

AppalAsia at Istanbul

Posted By on Tue, Jan 19, 2010 at 4:43 PM

I went to see Ordo Sakhna last Saturday and an AppalAsia concert broke out.

My first trip to Lawrenceville's restaurant/coffeehouse was to hear Ordo Sakhna, a troupe of professional musicians from Kyrgyzstan. The group is dedicated to preserving the culture of that country's traditional nomadic way of life, but travel away from the plains of Central Asia can get complicated, too: Concert attendees arrived to learn that the troupe's U.S. tour had been held up by visa troubles.

But the show (in this case, a show promoted by CP contributor Manny Theiner) went on. The local trio called AppalAsia expanded its performance from an opening set to an evening-length performance.

That development significantly muted any disappointment. In fact, it seemed that few folks took the full refund that was offered, opting for a half-refund and the AppalAsia show.

AppalAsia creates its own traditions by blending American string-band instrumentation (banjo and mountain dulcimer, usually) with the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese violin whose keening wail you've heard if you've ever seen a period film about China. The group's been around a few years, playing in clubs, the lobby of PSO concerts, and recently at First Night. But for many (including me), this was the first chance to see it in a nonsupporting role. 

Though many of its songs are based on folk classics either Chinese and American, all AppalAsia's songs are "original" in the sense that noone's ever played them before. The percussive runs on Sue Powers' banjo blend beautifully with the earthy airs Mimi Jong's bow draws from her erhu and the throatier rhythms of Jeff Berman's dulcimer. Most of the songs are instrumental, though Powers (who plays with Berman in American roots group Devilish Mary) and Jong sometimes contribute vocals. (AppalAsia next performs this Fri., Jan. 22, at Club Café with The Newlanders).

It didn't hurt that the concert took place in Istanbul, the Middle Eastern themed venue that formerly housed Your Inner Vagabond. While diners sat out in the front of this Butler Street establishment, behind the curtain at rear there opened up a surprisingly large, high-ceilinged room, furnished with low upholstered seats and pillows. Many people simply sat on the floor; some had food from the restaurant, and many did BYOB. All in all, a cozy affair, like seeing a concert in your living room with a group of 100 or so friends and agreeable strangers. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Public sculpture "Rivers of Glass"

Posted By on Fri, Jan 15, 2010 at 4:29 PM

The southern end of Stanwix Street is, for the most part, steely and anonymous. It's comprised largely of big office buildings in various shades of silver and gray, with relatively few points of entry to the street, and little to catch the eye.

Any measure of detail or lightness here is welcome. Starting Jan. 11, pedestrians had a new one. "Rivers of Glass: Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" was officially unveiled in the 11 Stanwix Building (the one with the rotating ad-agency sign at the corner of Fort Pitt Boulevard).

The work consists of some 1,300 hand-blown glass forms suspended across (I'm guessing) some 250 feet of the the building's high-ceilinged lobby. The sculpture is tantalizingly if faintly visible from street level on Stanwix. (Look behind the United Steelworkers building: The 11 Stanwix lobby faces the courtyard abutting those two structures and the Post-Gazette building.)

Looking from left to right as you enter the plate-glass-windowed lobby, you'll see two narrow bands of the forms converging overhead to form one.

"Rivers of Glass" is by the Beacon, N.Y.-based artist team of Jill Reynolds and glass-blower Daniel Spitzer. The concept behind it is twofold. One, it's meant to conjure Pittsburgh's three rivers, and is in fact aligned as they are. Two, according to a press release, the glass forms "are hung to create an undulating wave that represents a segment of a sound wave from the song ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,' by Pittsburgh jazz legend Billy Strayhorn."

That might sound a little conceptually contrived, but it works.

First, the color is pretty: The delicate-walled forms (modeled on 26 different shapes of water droplet) range from a deep bottle-blue to transparent enough to take on the hues of a gray January sky.

This suggests a rather hopeful rendering of even the Allegheny's coloration, let alone the muddy Mon's. But the effect is impressive. Simply by hanging either three or four gracefully bulbous shapes from each of a series of steel cables, and varying their heights (to mimic those sound waves), the artist create a great feeling of movement and grace in a quite boxy space. 

I thought the best view was found with one's back to the window that faces toward the Point. From there, the sculpture's "forks" seem to flow away, yet somehow to become more densely packed as they do, one of them as it curls around a corner and disappears into a hall off the lobby.

From the building's courtyard, by contrast, you get a nice sense of the ethereal installation leavening the brownish-black, 24-story mass of 11 Stanwix, which was first constructed as the Westinghouse Building, in 1970. (It now houses offices for state workers, among others.)

The sculpture project (with its $75,000 artist commission) was sponsored by building-owner RexxHall Realty, in partnership with EDGE Studio and Pittsburgh Glass Center (where the glass was blown).

The 11 Stanwix Building is open to the public during weekday business hours. The photograph at right is courtesy of Nathan J. Shaulis.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

First Night

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 2010 at 10:41 AM

Though I'm still waiting on final attendance figures from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, I feel pretty confident that the latest iteration of the community New Year's Eve celebration drew well.

For one thing, the big, multi-venue Downtown party didn't officially begun until 6 p.m. -- but when I went to the box office at 5:45 to inquire about the free vouchers needed for certain events, all but two of those performances were already sold out. And the venues for those events (music, improv comedy, etc.) included such large halls as the Byham and the August Wilson Center.

Indeed, in a few spots you might have been forgiven for thinking attendance was too good. In its efforts to attract the cold-averse (especially in the wake of two rainy or frigid First Nights running), the Trust has brought more events indoors. But because there are only so many real performance spaces available Downtown, a few of those thrust into service were marginally serviceable.

And so at the Trust's own new education center, on Liberty Avenue, the Andean music ensemble Musuhallpa performed in a glorified hallway. The group was wonderful, but even a few dozen listeners taxed the space, and even at that had to keep adjusting to make room for newcomers or departing visitors to a crafts station down the hall.

Though the streets didn't seem especially crowded during my own First Night stint (6-8:30 p.m.), the gathering for Musuhallpa made you believe that there were enough people gathered indoors at any given moment to justify the Trust's prediction of 30,000 attendees.

Still, most of the performances I attended had plenty of room. The 7th Avenue space where WYEP hosted a lively set by Meeting of Important People, for instance, was probably bigger than necessary (though admittedly, it was only 6:30, a little early for rocking out, perhaps especially at alcohol-free First Night). At the newly relocated Toonseum, and the unnamed space at 820 Liberty that hosted a fabulous collection of salvaged-tree art by locals Urban Tree Forge, crowds were small but appreciative.

In the unlikely office of Catholic Charities, a wonderful set by AppalAsia (which fuses American roots music with Asian sounds), was well-attended in a way that was cozy, not stifling. Soul sing-songwriter Joy Ike had a nice crowd at Space Gallery, even though folks had to stand, while others wandered about the current exhibition there.

Meanwhile, over at Future Tenant, folks sat attentively for poetry readings offered by the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange. That surprised me a little: I didn't know how poetry readings would go over at a sprawling community event just raucous enough to both start and end with fireworks. Moreover, the big parade on Penn passes right outside Future Tenant's door. But as I arrived at the gallery, minutes after the parade ended, a crowd of some 40 occupied folding chairs as poets read for about 10 minutes each. 

Though the charms of some First Night staples (like guys carving ice with chainsaws) continue to elude me, it's nice to see there's still room for variety.


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