Natasha Neira’s This Isn’t About You at 709 Penn Gallery | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Natasha Neira’s This Isn’t About You at 709 Penn Gallery

An immersive “bedroom” exhibit tells a fascinating story

Chamber of secrets: Natasha Neira’s This Isn’t About You (detail)
Chamber of secrets: Natasha Neira’s This Isn’t About You (detail)

Upon entering 709 Penn Gallery to experience Natasha Neira’s This Isn’t About You, if you take a few steps forward and keep your back to the door, it’s easy to forget where you are. This whole-gallery installation creating the private space of a young woman in emotional turmoil is precise, specific and rich, full to bursting with the trappings of a nostalgic rendition of femininity — and the traps of attempting to navigate safely within its boundaries.

Vintage furniture, bedframe, dresser, wardrobe and vanity are all well-crafted hand-me-downs from a departed grandmother or maiden aunt, clean but plain and worn, received rather than chosen, more the backdrop of the room than its backbone. It’s what rests atop, within, around and beneath them that introduces and connects us to the girl — and “girl” is fair, because the room suggests the imitation of anticipated womanhood rather than its actualization, biological adulthood not yet ripened by maturity — who has made this space her own. And this being an interactive exhibition as well as an immersive one, you’re permitted to inspect everything here hands-on.

Garments silky, fuzzy, translucent and diaphanous hang on a dressing screen and relax on hangers: limp pantyhose, see-through peignoirs useless for any purpose but seduction, poodly wool coats with collars of real ermine or fox. Jewelry and purses and accessories provide support with sparkle and twinkle and shine, festooned with sequins, pearls and glitter. Warpaint in the form of lipstick and powder waits ready beside a mirror or abandoned on the floor, and reference materials of Playboy and scandal rags are strewn everywhere. Clearly there was a mission. A few half-used packs of birth control pills back it up. 

And clearly things took an unwanted turn. Augmenting the flotsam of persuasion and jetsam of entrancement is the detritus of rejection and the desperate depression that follows, ashtrays abundant with butts and stinking, empty bottles of booze ready to be broken underfoot, prescription bottles strewn pell-mell and, one can imagine, ineffective. And finally, the last refuge of the lovelorn, frantic and fraught: the empty hope of divination — prayer candles promising invocations to resurrect the flames of passion grown cold, once their wicks are lit and burning, and fortune-telling cards making the unwieldy boast that, if read correctly, they will reveal the necessary action to bring your loved one back into your arms.  

These objects collectively construct a narrative, and once regarded with the requisite attention, the story unfolds loud and clear — sometimes literally so, with the assistance of an old-school turntable and a Bakelite phone that will doubtless raise questions as to its purpose from younger observers. At first, the story could be deciphered as a tale from decades gone by: The majority of the articles, whether lingerie or porn, are flawless period pieces from the middle of the last century. But a few anachronisms make us reassess the timeline — records by the Talking Heads and Blondie, the writings of Erica Jong and Don DeLillo, empty cartons of Chinese food, can after can after can of LaCroix. These are jarring, but what they do for our appraisal is heartening. This no longer seems the story of a woman who has reached, sadly, an end, but a woman who is in transition, progressing from attempts to be what she believes she’s supposed to be, to figuring out who she is. 

The title of this work references the clichéd and painful excuses given by the one who no longer loves to the one who still does, a throwaway phrase designed to cushion the blow of abandonment and make it easier — not for the injured party, but for the one doing the wounding. It’s not you, babe, it’s me. But while that blithe and worn nugget of douchebaggery might be originally intended to recall words spoken to the artist, it can also be interpreted as words spoken by the artist to those viewing her work. Contextualized thus, this compact phrase positions viewers to consider not only their response to what they’re observing, but their role in doing so.  

This work is here, and you can look at it, you can respond to it and have an opinion and ideas. But this work is not here for you. This work is here for this locally based artist, driven by her need to tell this tale.