Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Chris Hondros Memorial

Posted By on Sat, Apr 30, 2011 at 8:36 PM

I spoke by phone earlier today with Jeff Swensen. The Pittsburgh-based photographer was in Fayetteville, N.C., for the funeral of his close friend Hondros, the internationally acclaimed conflict photographer. 

Hondros, 41, was a familiar face in Pittsburgh in recent years, largely due to Swensen. The two had been friends since their first day in graduate school at Ohio University, back in the 1990s. They'd been roommates, and Swensen says they were in continual contact over the years, as much as Hondros' globe-spanning travels allowed.

In some 15 years of war photography, Hondros, a Getty Images staffer, shot everywhere from Kosovo and Angola to Afghanistan, Iraq and the West Bank. In Pittsburgh, he lectured to college students, showed slides of his work at venues including Pittsbugh Filmmakers, and exhibited at Space Gallery. 

Most memorably for me, in April 2009, I was part of a crowd of about 80 who gathered in Swensen's South Side studio to witness a half-hour performance in which a stunning series of Hondros' images from his six years in post-invasion Iraq were shown to the accompaniment of Bach's Partita in D Minor, played live on solo violin by Pittsburgh Symphony concert master Mark Huggins. 

"In his pictures, you sense [Hondros] not just reacting, but also thinking." I wrote that in a blog post about the event dated April 20, 2009 – eerily, two years to the day before Hondros died after a mortar strike in Misrata, Libya, where he was on assignment. Killed in the same attack was Tim Hetherington, director of the film Restrepo.

Hondros' two best-known images exhibited multiple facets of his talent, and his humanity. One, depicting a young Liberian militiaman, shirtless, leaping in exultation after a direct rocket-launcher hit, demonstrated Hondros' own coolness in the face of fire and his facility for capturing the moment. The other is a wrenching photo of a young Iraqi girl wailing after the shooting of her entire family by American soldiers at a checkpoint, revealing Hondros' ability to capture emotional trauma despite the emotions he himself was surely feeling at the time.

The deaths of Hondros and Hetherington were national, even international news. A memorial service for Hondros at a church in Brooklyn on April 27 drew hundreds. Among them was his fiance, Christina Piaia; the two were scheduled to marry in August.

"He lives on in so many of us," says Jeff Swensen. "He was more than just his pictures."

"There wasn't a boring moment in Chris Hondros' life. He filled every minute with stuff to do," Swensen adds.

Swensen says the funeral, in Hondros' hometown of Fayetteville, was attended by friends from as far away as Istanbul, Turkey.

In Pittsburgh, a candlelight memorial for Hondros will be held at 7:30 p.m. Mon., May 2, on the West End Overlook. All are welcome.

Meanwhile, Christina Piaia has announced the creation of The Chris Hondros Fund, to provide scholarships for aspiring photojournalists and raise awareness of issues surrounding conflict photographer. Here is the address: The Chris Hondros Fund c/o Christina Piaia, Getty Images 75 Varick St., 5th Floor New York, NY 10013.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Steve Pellegrino's Accordion Stories

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2011 at 4:14 PM

I've admired performance artist Pellegrino's work for years, but until last night I'd never thought to consider him a mutant hybrid. But it's true: Pellegrino is what you get when you cross-fertilize the son of a Mon Valley coal town with avant-garde theater.

Pellegrino, after all, cites as key formative experiences both the instructions from his Italian-immigrant dad to pound bent nails straight in the family basement ... and a late-1960s junior-high class trip to see a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed on a rotating stage.

Perhaps Pellegrino's best-known live work is "Calling Mr. Conrad," a collaboration with Frank Ferraro at the 2005 Three Rivers Arts Festival. The "outdoor radiophonic opera," a tribute to local broadcast-radio pioneer Frank Conrad, involved Pellegrino singing from the top of a giant replica radio dish in Downtown's Stanwix Triangle, accompanied by a platoon of saxophonists and a modern-dance troupe.

Pellegrino, a plasterer by trade, has also done a whole series of drywall-themed performance-art pieces, some of which have involved the deus ex machina of a refrigerator from outer space. It can all be as puzzling and oblique as it is fascinating.

By contrast, Accordion Stories is Pellegrino at his most accessible. It's just him on stage at little Grey Box Theatre, for 90 minutes of storytelling and music.

As Pellegrino admits, most anyone who grew up in the Mon Valley in the wake of the Depression would have similar stories about wacky family members. What distinguishes Accordion Stories is the music. It's a theme from his earliest memories of his father -- also an accordionist -- lullabying the young Pellegrino and his brother with the squeezebox.

Pellegrino still has his dad's old accordion -- the one the old man bought as a young man by lugging coal-furnace ash for 50 cents a day. Such stories would make a pleasant enough evening, but Pellegrino really shines when sharing songs.

At the first of three performances, he summoned countless Mon Valley wedding receptions by recruiting a couple up to polka. Later, he played "Lady of Spain," "Twilight Time" and a jazzed-up "Sweet Georgia Brown." He performed his ticked-off-workingman original "Andrew Carnegie Was a Jag-off" and a terrific version of the wonderfully dolorous Depression-era hit "Brother Can You Spare a Dime."

The shows, by the way, benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Pellegino's encore involved a recollection of how he came to work with acclaimed Braddock filmmaker Tony Buba, some 30 years ago. That story, too, illustrated Pellegrino's working-class roots. If you doubted that it did, you could have just asked

Buba himself. He was the guy at last night's show with the video camera, documenting it for his good pal Pellegrino.

Accordion Stories continues at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow at Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Tickets are $12-15 plus a food item. 412-576-0898 or 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Quantum's Maria de Buenos Aires at the East Liberty Y

Posted By on Fri, Apr 15, 2011 at 4:51 PM

Surely one of the things Quantum Theatre's audiences appreciate most is the urban-egg-hunt aspect of following the nomadic company's productions to offbeat spaces around town.

Quantum is of course the company that by the design of founder and artistic director Karla Boos stages only site-specific work, invariably in nontraditional performances spaces. Most notable, perhaps, there have been parks, a cemetery, a drained and long-unused public swimming pool, and a numberless succession of cavernous, vacated warehouses. Quantum's been at it for 20 years.

The latest venue is the old East Liberty Y. Though located right in the heart of that rejuvenating neighborhood -- and right across from the grand East Liberty Presbyterian Church, next to the Carnegie Library and nearby a growing roster of good restaurants -- the century-old building has stood empty for years.

Lots of dust and peeled paint aside, it's still a pretty solid old pile. Just a few years ago, in fact, there was a scheme to turn it into luxury condos.

But if it's got to be empty, it's hard to imagine a better temporary use than Quantum's production of Maria de Buenos Aires, a "tango operita" by Astor Piazzolla. The building's aura of ruined neoclassicality seems ideal for the opera's surreal narrative about a prostitute's hard life, death, sojourn in the afterlife and rebirth.

The story is on the mythic side and a bit difficult to follow. (It's entirely sung and spoken in Spanish, only some of which is translated vocally or by video projections.) But the music, played by a live orchestra, is gorgeous, and what dialogue and lyrics we do catch are often evocative. ("The hearse was pulled by 12 Judases and driven by a small drunken Christ.")

Quantum has even turned the performance space -- which looks like it might have been the Y's small auditorium or banquet hall -- into a cabaret, the multi-runway stage surrounded by small café tables bolted into the floor.

With the music and the darkly redemptive action on stage (including dancing choreographed and performed by Attack Theatre), it's a different little world right in the middle of the world you thought you knew.

Maria de Buenos Aires continues with four more performances through Sun., April 17 (including two the evening of Sat., April 16).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Annie O'Neill's Work in Progress at Filmmakers Galleries

Posted By on Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 5:50 PM


The North Side-based photographer's gorgeous series of portraits of people with 50 years or more at the same job is turning into her life's work, at least part-time.

O'Neill was working for the Detroit News in 1995 when she was assigned to photograph a family. The father was a barber. "I found out he was 92 ... He honestly didn't look like he was over 65," says O'Neill. "He talked about how work was really important to him."

Over the 16 years since -- including her 12-year stint as an award-winning staffer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- O'Neill has plugged away with her medium-format camera. She's captured people from every walk of life, from artists like Frank Mason (pictured) to manual laborers.

This collection of 18 large-scale black-and-white portraits is on exhibit at Filmmakers through this weekend.

There's the late Umberto Buccigrossi, the late Bloomfield shoemaker she shot years ago for the P-G, captured in a beatific moment. ("You make me feel like a king," he told her as she lugged her lights and camera into his shop.)


Among the more recent shoots was Dick LeBeau (pictured), the Steelers coach whom O'Neill learned has over a half-century of service in the National Football League. 

Some portraits were made far away, like the one of an indigenous basket-weaver on Nunavak Island, in the Bering Sea, whom O'Neill caught laughing uproariously as the wind catches her big scarf.

Nearer to home is Dorsal Bibbee, a grave-digger from Tuppers Plains, Ohio, who still works with a shovel. O'Neill shot him by a freshly dug grave so we can see the hole's plum-straight sides, as flat-planed as if hewn by machine.

Filmmakers' galleries also feature Uniformity, an exhibit of smaller color photos of people -- mostly Pittsburghers -- who wear uniforms, from road crews and nuns to a tagger and a street performer.

That show is charming, but odds are it's Work in Progress where you'll linger. O'Neill credits her subjects' personalities: "They all had a real strong sense of purpose and a real vitality to them."

They also, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to think poorly of retirement.

Take Barbara Luderowski, a near-neighbor of O'Neill's whom she was inspired to photograph close-up, at eye level -- and from behind, emphasizing the Mattress Factory Art Museum founder's distinctive silhouette of short silver hair.

Luderowski "thinks retirement is just ridiculous -- something somebody made up," says O'Neill.

Then there's Arthur Winston, who spent 72 years as a Los Angeles transit employee, then died weeks after retiring ... at age 100.

O'Neill makes her living primarily by shooting for local magazines and nonprofits; she photographs weddings, too. She says her own attitude toward work was forged growing up in Long Island, as one of 10 kids whose parents owned a deli. Her dad, she recalls, was unhappy in retirement.

"I can't imagine myself retiring," says O'Neill. "I want to do it forever. I want to be a 50-year person."

Filmmakers Galleries, 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland, are open noon-7 p.m. today and tomorrow, noon-6 p.m. Friday. 412-681-5449 or

Friday, April 8, 2011

Political Poster Artist and Activist Josh MacPhee Speaks

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2011 at 10:43 PM

This founding member of the Justseeds Artists Cooperative visits to talk at the closing reception for the most comprehensive exhibit of his work to date.

MacPhee, based in Brooklyn, edited or co-edited a couple books based on touring exhibits of poster art, and two of those tours have reached Pittsburgh. Signs of Change: Social Movment Cultures 1960s to Now was exhibited at Carnegie Mellon's Miller Gallery about a year ago, and Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today, was at Downtown's Space this past summer. 

Justseeds ( is a decentralized network of 26 artists taking radical stances on society, politics and the environment.

"Labor Creates All Wealth," asserts one of MacPhee's own posters as included in Paper Politics.

On Sat., April 9, MacPhee speaks at the closing party his show at Justseeds' distribution headquarters, which is right here in Lawrenceville. The party is from 7-10 p.m. The talk is titled "Visualizing History from Below."

Justseeds is located at 3410 Penn Ave. (by the Doughboy statue); enter at the back on Spring Way.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

2011-12 Speakers' Series

Posted By on Thu, Apr 7, 2011 at 4:49 PM

The former Drue Heinz Lectures and Robert Morris University’s Pittsburgh Speakers Series‭ ‬recently announced their line-ups,‭ ‬and both boast big names.

Pittsburgh Arts‭ & ‬Lectures‭ ‬(‭) ‬has renamed its series Literary Evenings,‭ ‬Monday Night Lectures.‭ ‬It opens Sept.‭ ‬19‭ ‬with venerable investigative reporter Seymour M.‭ ‬Hersh,‭ ‬whose latest book,‭ ‬Chain of Command,‭ ‬explores the early years of the‭ “‬War on Terror.‭”

The series,‭ ‬at held at Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall,‭ ‬continues with actor and newly minted memoirist John Lithgow‭ (‬Drama‭) ‬and‭ ‬critically‭ ‬esteemed best-selling novelist Jonathan Franzen,‭ ‬and hardly lets up from there.

Also included are Mark Bittman,‭ ‬author of‭ ‬The Food Matters Cookbook‭; ‬novelist Anne Patchett‭; ‬and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.‭ ‬On Jan.‭ ‬30,‭ ‬2012,‭ ‬the series tries something new with an onstage conversation about the Great Migration‭ (‬of African Americans to the North‭) ‬between historian Isabel Wilkerson and NPR’s Michele Norris,‭ ‬both of whom have‭ ‬written‭ ‬books on the subject.

The series concludes with‭ ‬The Perfect Storm author Sebastien Junger‭ (‬his new one is‭ ‬War‭); ‬and two novelists,‭ ‬Abraham Verghese‭ (‬Cutting for Stone‭) ‬and Lisa See‭ (‬Dreams of Joy‭)‬.

The Pittsburgh Speakers Series,‭ ‬meanwhile,‭ ‬kicks off Oct.‭ ‬12‭ ‬with best-selling historian Ron Chernow,‭ ‬best known for his bios of Washington and‭ ‬Hamilton.

Other big names include‭ ‬spouse team‭ ‬Joe Wilson‭ ‬(the diplomat‭) ‬and Valerie Plame‭ ‬(the CIA operative‭); ‬Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan‭; ‬Tom Brokaw‭; ‬and‭ ‬controversial retired Gen.‭ ‬Stanley McChrystal,‭ ‬whom‭ ‬President‭ ‬Obama asked to resign as chief of U.S.‭ ‬forces in Afghanistan after a‭ ‬2010‭ ‬Rolling Stone article quoted him and his aides taking the piss out of the White House.

Also speaking are former Washington,‭ ‬D.C.,‭ ‬public-schools chancellor Michelle Rhee,‭ ‬a controversial advocate of school reform,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi.

The Speakers Series‭ ‬(‭) ‬is held at Heinz Hall,‭ ‬Downtown,‭ ‬but requires a commitment:‭ ‬Unlike Literary Evenings,‭ ‬you can’t buy single tickets but must subscribe to all seven talks,‭ ‬at packages starting at‭ ‬$285.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Curator of Censored-Video Exhibit Rips Museum-World Homophobia

Posted By on Mon, Apr 4, 2011 at 3:57 PM

In December, the Smithsonian Institution caved to right-wing political pressure and withdrew artist David Wojnarowicz's 1986-87 video "A Fire in My Belly" from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. In response, regional museums in Pittsburgh and elsewhere hosted screenings of the video, which includes sequences depicting ants crawling over a crucified plastic Jesus.

But if you saw these screenings as a simple act of art-world solidarity, Jonathan Katz says you're missing the point.

Katz co-curated Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the exhibit that included "Fire in My Belly." It was the first major museum exploration of how same-sex desire has influenced American portraiture. (Wojnarowicz, who was gay, died from AIDS in 1992.)

Sure, said Katz in a recent phone interview with CP, it's great that the show and the video drew additional eyeballs thanks to the controversy. But Katz, an art scholar and activist who directs the visual-studies doctoral program at SUNY Buffalo, sees a bigger problem. The Wojnarowicz episode and its fallout, he says, provided "perfect cover for longstanding and deep-rooted homophobia that still pervades the American museum world."

Katz, who's been outspoken about the controversy, visits Carnegie Mellon University on Wed., April 6, to participate in a panel discussion about it.

Don't get him wrong: Katz says that it was "incredibly stupid" for the Smithsonian to remove "Fire in my Belly" after conservative activists like William Donohue, and Republican politicians like then-incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, called it offensive to Christians.

But in Katz's view, the larger context is that American museums are "the last remaining bastion of implicit and explicit homophobia in the American cultural sphere." The fact that some of them showed "Fire in My Belly" doesn't change what he calls a two-decade-long "blacklist" on LGBT lives and work.

Katz says this blacklist started in 1989, when a campaign by Sen. Jesse Helms ended with the cancelation of a show by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art. Helms, Katz says, equated gay artists, AIDS and threats to American youth; the Christian right, emboldened, has helped cow the art world ever since: "People decided they just weren't going to address sexuality."

Katz notes that it took a publicly funded museum, the National Portait Gallery, to break this silence. He says that private institutions, though hypothetically freer, are in practice in thrall to their boards of directors -- comprised of wealthy folks who tend to favor the status quo.

Is all this true in Pittsburgh, too? After all, we're home to the world's biggest single-artist museum -- The Andy Warhol Museum, honoring an artist who was gay. And the Carnegie Museums (parent institution to the Warhol) are currently exhibiting Paul Thek: Diver, a major retrospective of work by a gay artist.

Katz draws a distinction. The blacklist he alleges doesn't rule out showcasing artists who are gay, or noting their sexuality. Rather, it applies to shows that thematically focus on the sexuality of artists, the way other themed shows might explore women artists, or 19th-century French landscape painting.

Katz says the Wojnarowicz controversy can be tricky to discuss.

"[W]e have to resist the framing of this as a religious issue," Katz recently told the blog Modern Art Notes. "It's naked politics. It's power politics. It's not even really in some sense a homophobia issue. It's about consolidation of conservative power in many instances. It's attempting to dictate a new American polity."

The April 6 panel discussion, including a screening of "A Fire in My Belly," also features experts including Richard Howells, reader in cultural and creative industries at King's College London; David Dombrosky, head of CMU's Center for Arts Management and Technology; and Andreea Deciu Ritivoi, associate professor of English at CMU. 

The events takes place at 4:30 p.m. Wed., April 6, in the Adamson Wing (Baker Hall 136), on CMU's Oakland campus.


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