Sometimes this town seems a tad self-conscious. Recent years have seen, arguably, an excess of Pittsburgh artwork about Pittsburgh, perhaps cynically juxtaposing the glorious industrial past with urban decay, or more optimistically celebrating the life and diversity of its individual communities, a la Sprout Fund murals. The takes have ranged from heavy-handed to ham-fisted, and explored most of the obvious psychic avenues of the generally 'Burgh-friendly but realistic city resident.
So while another exhibition limelighting Pittsburgh seems a tough sell, Daviea Davis' Neighborhood Mosaic Project adopts an alternative craftsmanship and a level of community involvement that dodges the ruts of the more trafficked approaches. The exhibit, on view in the Hodge Gallery at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, is a collection of stained-glass windows and "smokestacks" created from salvaged materials supplied by Construction Junction and Youghiogheny Glass, all completed during the artist's three-month-plus stint building and educating as artist-in-residence. "The gallery," says this Pittsburgh-based artist, "was my full-time studio from January until April."
For a city with an abundance of old churches, and a history rooted in immigrant Catholicism, the choice of craft seems loaded. While the composition of the windows themselves draws few parallels with Christian worship, the effect of walking through the show space, with its nave-like entrance and symmetrical arrangement, unavoidably registers the walk down a church aisle. And, like weekly service, the Mosaic Project was a community affair, with Davis assisted by students from several Pittsburgh public and private schools.
The gallery is arranged to mimic the -- if I do say so myself -- pretty compelling entrance to the city via the Fort Pitt Tunnel, with a darkened fabric tent playing the part of the traffic tunnel, and the lower stained-glass section reiterating the effect, ember-like red mosaic bits portraying the brake-lights ahead. Mirrored, vertically oriented shards, naturally, compose the towering PPG building, and the fountain at the point is rendered in tiny white bits. The view of Downtown, like the other window mosaics, is lit from behind, emphasizing the medium's modulated luminousness. It's a good introductory piece, offering the viewer a handful of recognizable Pittsburgh landmarks to get accustomed to the more expressive use of mosaic found elsewhere in the show.
Though strewn with familiar site references, the compositions may seem challenging, at least for the less painting-savvy. Evenly sized tiles are stacked vertically on the picture plane rather than receding into the distance. Human faces grin with bright red lips and teeth too big and too few. These techniques and others seem to borrow more from mid-century European Expressionists like Ernst Ludwig Kirschner and Otto Dix than from other, more classically graceful stained-glass art. Because the shapes and fields of color are grouted together from scraps, rather than being cut to spec, control of the medium is largely ceded to happenstance. It is this patchwork, bricolage nature of the individual panes that prevents them from being simply ornamental, and lends them their jittery abstract energy.
What is immediately fetching and accessible, and lingers afterward, is the glowing color. The crucial element of most glass art, color is used here to turn the gray skies of the 'Burgh a swirling blue, and its autumnal browns and yellows into fiery amber and gold. Though this does not immediately suggest the town's, shall we say, understated presence of sunlight, Neighborhood Mosaic Project is bright without affecting spotlessness, and loyal without pandering. Moreover, it may encourage us to recognize the pockets of light in a few worn-down boroughs, and enjoy a Pittsburgh that is more than the sum of its parts.
Neighborhood Mosaic Project continues through June 14. Pittsburgh Glass Center, 5472 Penn Ave., Friendship. 412-365-2145