Looking toward the future of the Rust Belt with help from an antique photographic process. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Looking toward the future of the Rust Belt with help from an antique photographic process.

Christopher McGinnis's Greenhouse 1 blooms at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Greenhouse 1 (detail), by Chris McGinnis
Greenhouse 1 (detail), by Chris McGinnis

Christopher McGinnis's Greenhouse 1 is structured around relatively complex, yet surprisingly accessible, metaphors of struggling communities, history and hope. This pristine-in-places, messy-in-places installation by Pittsburgh returnee McGinnis, back from Tucson with an MFA, is as labor-intensive as a steel pour — notwithstanding that it boldly fills but a quarter of an otherwise empty Pittsburgh Center for the Arts gallery, creating a dramatic contrast.

Greenhouse 1 partitions a section of the gallery with a beautifully carpentered wall of 78 wood-frame windows, which pivot just as real greenhouse windows do. Each windowpane holds a typical Rust Belt scene of an abandoned industrial site, or decrepit housing tied to such industries. The windows partially mask without concealing and are set ajar to create openings; we can also see through the photographic images themselves, which are monochromatic in brown with lots of blank sky, typical of 19th-century photographs oversensitive to the blue of the atmosphere. A text panel helpfully informs us that after the Civil War, albumen negatives depicting the war were unwelcome reminders, and thus sometimes repurposed as greenhouse windows.

McGinnis (an occasional CP contributor) employs the photographic window-wall as a metaphor for reuse that can protect and enable renewal. Facing the wall of photographic windows, we see through to a 4-foot-high ton of waste including wooden pallets, old pieces of steel and a heavy sprinkling of the ubiquitous brownfield trail mix of dirt, rust and pulverized fragments of who-knows-what. There's a streak of optimism, or at least possibility, for rooted in this mound of waste are poplar seedlings, adaptive and tenacious.

The message is clear: There's hope for downtrodden but still respiring communities such as Homestead and Braddock. While McGinnis doesn't come right out and say it, these scenes of Rust Belt abandonment depict results of, if not a different kind of war, at least a different kind of conflict — of undue influence, special interests and the policies that shape environments and outcomes.

McGinnis stops short of offering an action list, which is fair enough: In our volatile economic and political environment, we need to be as adaptive as a poplar. In the present moment, representing history and symbolizing hope is no small achievement. Greenhouse 1 is a poignant reminder that we should be tending our seedlings and our communities.

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