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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

More on Astria Suparak and CMU’s Miller Gallery

Posted By on Tue, Mar 18, 2014 at 9:01 AM

Carnegie Mellon University has yet to announce detailed plans for the Miller Gallery, whose course abruptly shifted in January, when the school parted ways with longtime director Astria Suparak.

CMU spokesperson Pam Wigley says a faculty committee is currently meeting about how to advance the school’s decision to turn the on-campus art gallery into what an earlier statement described as a “combined gallery, teaching and research space that includes space for installations, seminars, hands-on art-creating workshops, artist lectures, and applied research in curatorial/exhibition practices.” Wigley says a formal update is expected by the end of March.

Meanwhile, questions about Suparak’s termination linger: Many in the art community don’t understand why a cutting-edge gallery director who spent six years boosting attendance and drawing rave reviews for exhibits that often went on to tour nationally isn’t still working there.

Suparak isn’t talking to the media about her departure, and CMU declines to discuss personnel matters. But others close to the school and the gallery tell CP there were issues at play beyond the attention Suparak and the Miller drew.

On campus, for instance, critics faulted Suparak’s curatorial approach. For some tastes, too many of her exhibits relied too heavily on texts, documentary photos and natural-history-museum-style display cases, rather than on paintings, sculpture or even installation works.

“Artistically, I felt it was a pretty narrow perspective,” says one CMU faculty member who asked to remain anonymous. The faculty member generally supported Suparak’s approach, but said, “The actual nature of the work, there is a kind of monotony to it. I think people were getting frustrated with that.”

Suparak’s shows often presented documentation — like the photos of research projects in Intimate Science — or artifacts of a subculture, like the home-made concert posters and slogan-bearing T-shirts in Alien She. Students and professors visiting a campus-based gallery “need work that engages more with the materiality of media,” said the faculty member.

Put another way, “People who make more traditional objects were feeling left out,” says one of Suparak’s art-community colleagues.

Some observers have also noted dissatisfaction with the frequency of the shows. The Miller occupies its own spacious, three-story building, but in recent years Suparak had staged only one or two new full-scale exhibits a year (not counting the two longstanding annual showcases for the university’s BFA seniors and its MFA graduate students). In the years before Suparak’s arrival, the Miller had typically hosted at least four exhibits a year.

“For the budget, for the staff, for our status, I don’t think that we had enough programming,” said the CMU faculty member.

Meanwhile, although attendance at the gallery increased under Suparak, especially for the big opening events, it might not have been enough for CMU officials. “They wanted those numbers to be higher,” says CMU art professor Richard Pell, a member of the gallery’s advisory committee. (For his part, Pell laments Suparak’s departure: “It seems really shortsighted, with what she’s done,” he says.)

Personality might have played a role in Suparak’s departure as well, some surmise: “stubborn” and “uncompromising” are two terms often used to describe Suparak at work. And while her supporters point out that such qualities are often viewed as positive traits in leaders — especially if those leaders are men — they acknowledge that she’s scarely the back-slapping, go-along-to-get along type. “She’s not easy to know, and in some ways it’s a who-you-know town,” says one such supporter. “She’s not gonna be the compromiser in the room. And it irritates some people.”

But in the wake of Suparak’s departure, the overriding sentiment remained shock that she is gone.

Hilary Robinson, a former dean of CMU’s College of Fine Arts and the person who hired Suparak, says that in 2008, the Miller was “moribund” — little known off campus and running a deficit. Robinson, interviewed in February, says she gave Suparak three years to turn the gallery around, and “she rose to that challenge. … She got back on budget, and she made the place known. … Astria Suparak made it a place people wanted to go.”

The shows remain popular elswhere, too. Intimate Science, a 2012 exhibit at the Miller, is still touring; it opened Feb. 6, at New York City’s Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, part of Parsons The New School for Design. Alien She, the final exhibit Suparak presented (and co-curated) at the Miller, just opened at Philadelphia’s Vox Populi.

But those tours might not have helped Suparak’s status with CMU officials. “As far as I can tell … the touring exhibitions and the amount of visitors they attracted didn’t seem to calculate into their statistics,” Pell says. He noted the big February opening reception in New York for Intimate Science, which he attended because it included contributions by his Center for PostNatural History. “The amount of attention that show received in Manhattan is huge. We can’t get that kind of a crowd here.”

Robinson, who left CMU in late 2012 to return to Great Britain, notes that in 2012, Suparak was one of 15 nominees in the world for Independent Curators International’s Independent Vision Curatorial Award, for mid-career curators. (Other nominees included Jay Sanders, of the Whitney Museum of American Art.)

“If that was a faculty member [who’d been nominated], they’d be saying ‘This is good for your tenure case,’” says Robinson.

Robinson said it was ironic that CMU planned to turn the Miller into a space focused on the needs of students and instructors. “Where else in Carnegie Mellon would a school say, ‘We’re going to look more inwardly’ and get praised for it? Absolutely nowhere. … Everyone would fall ’round laughing.”

Indeed, even the Miller Gallery itself continues to tout Suparak’s impact. Weeks after her final day at work, on the closing weekend of her final exhibit at the Miller, clippings still posted on a bulletin board outside the gallery announced her successes over the years. Postings visible Feb. 15 included coverage in The New York Times and the Huffington Post; that final show, the riot-grrrl-themed Alien She, was a critic’s pick in ArtForum.

As of last week, the Miller Gallery’s website included this testimonial from Nicolas Lampert, a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Pect School of the Arts: “Suparak and her staff have set the bar for contemporary art exhibitions about art and social justice. My message to artists and art students seeking inspiration in the US: look first at Pittsburgh and the Miller Gallery, then look at NYC, LA and Chicago.”

That endorsement seems to have since been removed.

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bricolage and STRATA Make National Theater Mag

Posted By on Tue, Jul 2, 2013 at 12:38 PM

Bricolage Production Co.’s immersive-theater work STRATA was among 2012’s arts highlights around here. Now the show is one of several immersive or interactive works highlighted in the cover story of the current issue of American Theatre Magazine.

The article, “The Walls Come Tumbling Down,” by Diep Tran, explores the burgeoning phenomenon of theater that patrons participate in rather than merely watch.

It's a fun, accessible read that documents the explosion in recent years of these sorts of shows, an early example of which was British troupe Punchdrunk’s MacBeth-inspired Sleep No More, whose U.S. premiere was in 2003, in Boston.

For STRATA, which ran last summer, Bricolage took over the former Bally’s building, Downtown, and turned it into a “refitnessing center” run by an imaginary company that promised a kind of existential self-improvement.

The building was dressed as a variety of rooms, from doctor’s offices and archives to gymnasiums and multimedia isolation booths. Patrons “played” STRATA customers, who then underwent individualized experiences depending on the choices they made, as partly determined by interactions with actors playing STRATA employees (some friendly, some more menacing, some simply puzzling).

STRATA (produced in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust) was Bricolage’s biggest-selling show ever, and a massive undertaking for the small company. I loved it, and so did CP’s reviewer, Michelle Pilecki.

While STRATA is just one of the shows featured in American Theatre, the online version of the article leads off with a short video about the show’s set and lighting design, narrated by Rob Long, of Clear Story Creative, one of the many groups and artists that collaborated on the show.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Art-Subscription Series Move Ahead

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2013 at 3:30 PM

Pittsburgh’s first two experiments with “community-supported art," launched in May, are off to a good start.

CSAs let subscribers buy a share in an art-subscription service, and in return receive a series of original artworks — or, in one case, admission to a series of new performances.

The concept is borrowed from community-supported agriculture, the trendy way to patronize local farmers. Folks in Minnesota pioneered art CSAs in 2010. The idea is to fund artists when they most need it — when they’re creating new work.

On June 7, CSA PGH held its first art pick-up, at The Andy Warhol Museum. Visual artworks by three local artists — a hand-lathed record album (David Bernabo), small photographs of local scenes (Ed Panar) and 50 pieces of a shirt belonging to Andy Warhol (Lenka Clayton) — were distributed to the 50 shareholders, who had ponied up $350 apiece.

And last night, The New Hazlett Theater welcomed shareholders and other guests to a preview event for its own CSA program.

The New Hazlett’s CSA is unique nationally in being dedicated to performance art. Four of the six CSA artists spoke, including Sarah Parker, of Continuum Dance Theater, and “audio/visual astronaut” Dan Wilcox (whose interactive work will ask, “Would you go to Mars if you had to leave tomorrow and you couldn’t come back?”

New Hazlett shares cost $100. Executive director René Conrad says that as of the conclusion of last night’s event, 89 of the target of 150 shares had been sold.

Hmmm — CSA PGH sold out its $350 shares in a month, while the New Hazlett is still trying to sell its $100 shares (albeit rather more of them, but still). Is performance a tougher sell than physical artworks? Certainly it’s non-collectible, which might deter some potential patrons — even though $100 is dirt-cheap for six original live performances.

Still, the first New Hazlett CSA performance isn’t until August, so there’s time for the other shares to sell. The theater does plan to offer non-subscription tickets to individual performances. But as Conrad says, “I really want to support the farm and not just the carrots.”

CSA PGH, meanwhile, has started a waiting list for next year’s offerings.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Cirque du Soleil's "Saltimbanco"

Posted By on Fri, Oct 19, 2012 at 8:09 AM

Chinese Poles
  • Olivier Samson Arcand Costumes : Dominique Lemieux © 2007 Cirque du Soleil Inc.
  • Chinese Poles

Saltimbanco is Cirque du Soleil’s longest-touring show, playing for seven performances at Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center. I caught the opening night on Thursday. With its breathtaking stunts, silly clowns, elaborate costumes and music combined in a general surreal spectacle, the show fulfilled all expectations of the troupe with eerie precision.

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens used the circus to represent the fanciful alternative to the world of facts and industry; to the machine. In Cirque du Soleil it seems the metaphors have merged. They create razzle-dazzle machines of entertainment in which everything is choreographed to smooth perfection. And with 5,000 employees, 20 different shows and an audience of millions worldwide, the Quebec-based troupe is seemingly unstoppable.

Utter reliability shouldn’t be a problem for a show like Saltimbanco, in which people unfurl from ropes tied fifty feet in the air and somersault off swinging platforms to be caught by human towers. But it does rob these fantastic feats of suspense or a sense of the performer's personalities. The possibility the bungee swingers, trapezists, and jugglers could screw up seems more remarkable than the fact that they don’t. In its 20 years of touring Saltimbanco is a victim of its own success.

Moreover many of the acts are over-saturated. The mind-bending "Cane Balancing" act or multi-person "Chinese Poles" come accompanied by booming Muzak — played live but sounding thoroughly artificial — and masked clowns faffing around in the background. It’s like watching the Olympic gymnastics final on your smart phone during a pop concert. There are some amazing displays of human ability in front of you, if only you weren’t too stimulated to concentrate on them.

The most effective acts in Saltimbanco are also the most stripped back. A drumming and whip-cracking duo in the "Boleadores" act create a vivid tango with minimal window dressing, and the schoolboy-attired solo clown "Eddie" is the star of the evening.

Using no more than mime, his personableness and beat-boxing skills, Eddie mocks up a spaghetti western standoff with an audience member. And what I’ll remember the most from Saltimbanco is when he flushed himself down the toilet, despite the fact most of the visuals of the scenario took place in my mind.

Saltimbanco plays through Sun., Oct. 21. Tickets are $32-80 and available here.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Final Weekend for Philip K. Dick Play

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2012 at 2:29 PM

One of this town’s many fine smaller stage troupes, Caravan Theatre of Pittsburgh, does itself proud with this strange and ambitious play about the cult-hero science-fiction author.
Even if you’ve never read a word Dick wrote, you know his concepts: Films from Bladerunner and Total Recall to Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly are based on his writings about the blurring lines between humans and androids, memory and falsehood, the future and the present.
Victoria Stewart’s play 800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick smartly and imaginatively summons the author’s spirit with a play whose form is adapted from Dick’s own aesthetics.
The play is largely set in 1982, on the very day Dick died, in his San Francisco flat. But it’s built around a divine revelation Dick believes he had several years earlier, and his efforts to write and publish a massive “exegesis” on God.
Just as Dick wrote about the present collapsing into the future, so in 800 Words does time seem unstable, with events from decades apart overlapping. And just like Dick made himself a character in his fictions, so does Stewart herself show up as a major character in Act 2, to hilarious if ultimately unnerving effect.
Caravan co-founders John Gresh and Dana Hardy play Dick and his long-suffering wife, Tessa. (“It’s just words,” Tessa says of one of her husband’s promises; he responds, “That’s all I have.”) The often manic action involves puppets, including Dick’s talking cat. The excellent supporting cast is expertly directed by Martin Giles.
A Dick fan I ran into at the show, staged at Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Downtown venue, said the play had inspired him to dig back into Dick’s writings.
Here’s Michelle Pilecki’s review for CP.
There are four more performances starting tomorrow, including a Sunday matinee. Tickets are $15-20.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Final Weekend for the REP's "August: Osage County"

Posted By on Sat, Sep 22, 2012 at 10:39 AM

There are just three more chances to see this great production of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play, tonight and tomorrow at Point Park University's Playhouse, in Oakland.
I've enjoyed local stagings of a few of Letts' earlier plays, including Bug and Killer Joe, but this one really floored me.
It's just huge, an epic in a small-town Oklahoma house that begins (after a brief prologue) with the disappearance of the family patriarch, a poet and college professor named Beverly Weston. From there it sprawls out into an uproarious 13-character drama about Weston's extended family.
But while it's quite dark — delving into alcoholism, prescription-drug addiction, infidelity and plenty of other taboos — August: Osage County is also one of the funniest plays I've ever seen.
And this mostly local cast, directed by John Shepard, does it proud, led by Mary Rawson as drug-addled matriarch Violet Weston.
CP critic Robert Isenberg gave the show a glowing review. And a theater veteran who saw last night's show with me said the REP's production bested the touring production (starring Estelle Parsons) that introduced the play to Pittsburgh in 2010.
The show's up for matinees today and tomorrow, with an evening show tonight.

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