Mattress Factory group exhibit finds artists caught in middle of conflict | Visual Art | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mattress Factory group exhibit finds artists caught in middle of conflict

click to enlarge “Credible, Small Secrets” by Sonya Kelliher-Combs - CP PHOTO: AMANDA WALTZ
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
“Credible, Small Secrets” by Sonya Kelliher-Combs
A shaggy, hot pink, cancer cell-shaped bed in the Mattress Factory begs visitors to stretch out across it. On the ceiling above, a Big Brother-like projection of a dreamy woman cast in painterly hues speaks directly to me. But I don’t understand.

“So, this is the Russian version,” says guest curator, Tavia La Follette, who is lying next to me. She adds that the artist, Lera Lerner, would have an English translation of the audio in time for the opening of Pop-Aganda: Revolution & Iconography, the group exhibition of which Lerner’s work, titled “Instability, Scattering, Wandering, Success,” is a part.

Officially opened on April 16, the show represents the fourth iteration of La Follette’s ongoing Sites of Passage series, described as a “global interchange for the migration of ideas across political and cultural borders.”The series came as a response to the xenophobia La Follette witnessed in Pittsburgh after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York City.


“It freaked me out,” says La Follette.

Sites of Passage uses conflicts between the United States and other countries as topics for discussion between artists, offering a different viewpoint from politicians and the media. The first Sites of Passage show gathered 36 artists from the U.S. and Egypt, and opened at Mattress Factory on September 11, 2011.

Pop-Aganda continues the mission of Sites of Passage, and “conflict” certainly defines every aspect of the show, from planning to execution. First, the exhibition was planned to open in November 2020 to align with the U.S. Presidential elections, but was postponed to April 1, 2022 due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Then, in late February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, delaying the show for another two weeks as La Follette and the museum rushed to make changes that would better protect the eight artists, who are based in the U.S .and in Russia.
click to enlarge "Under the table” by Veronika Rudyeva-Ryazantseva - CP PHOTO: AMANDA WALTZ
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
"Under the table” by Veronika Rudyeva-Ryazantseva
A statement says that, while the Mattress Factory and La Follette “condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the war, and stand in solidarity with Ukraine,” they “will not boycott Russian artists by merit of their nationality alone.” The statement brushes up against much of the U.S. response, as Russian products have been removed from store shelves and President Joe Biden banned the sale of Russian-produced oil.

Going through the exhibition, spread out on multiple floors and in the museum’s courtyard, the interactive, often playful elements of many pieces deceive the drama that went on, and continues to go on, behind the scenes. Even before the tour starts, I’m given sunflower seeds in a brightly colored blue-and-yellow packet. La Follette believes the seeds work as a “beautiful metaphor for colonization, for co-opting, for migration,” explaining that the sunflower, which originated in the U.S. and was brought to Europe by Spanish explorers, became Ukraine’s national flower, and then was brought back to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century by Russian immigrants.


Like Lerner’s piece, visitors are encouraged to touch, and even tred upon some of the works. With the multimedia installation “Under the table,” Veronika Rudyeva-Ryazantseva conveys the paranoia and surveillance of growing up in the Cold War-era Soviet Union, as visitors ascend small sets of stairs only to peer into a pit of forever-watching eyeballs. Pittsburgh-based Trinidadian artist Bekezela Mguni encourages quiet contemplation with the intimate photographs, African prints, and soft neon light of “I come from a holy place,” while Liz Cohen’s “GAZ COFFEE build #1,” located in the museum’s courtyard, delights as a 1969 Russian-made Jeep outfitted with a fully functional espresso machine, described as a “nod to a Cold War-era trade deal between the Soviet and Colombian governments.”

Jump across the “ice floes” in Emily Newman’s Ice Cream Station Zebra and Other Works, an anti-Cold War project located in the museum’s basement space. Newman, a Pittsburgh artist who lived in Russia, charms with films addressing her complicated feelings around the close relationship her children had with their Russian nanny, and introduces audiences to The New Chelyuskinites, a real-life group of Russian eccentrics who, in 1933, had to survive on the frozen Chukchi Sea during an ill-fated expedition to the Arctic.
click to enlarge Ice Cream Station Zebra and Other Works by Emily Newman - CP PHOTO: AMANDA WALTZ
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
Ice Cream Station Zebra and Other Works by Emily Newman
Other works are more upfront when addressing some of the show’s themes. Two artists, Syanda Yaptik and Sonya Kelliher-Combs, show the impact colonization has had on Indigenous populations in Russia and Alaska, a state once owned by Russia and made part of the U.S. in 1959.

“Credible, Small Secrets” by Kelliher-Combs uses maps and projections to illustrate the shocking history of how Catholic priests accused of molesting children were relocated to Alaska, where they continued their abuse. Kelliher-Combs, who is of Iñupiaq, German, and Irish descent, honors the many victims with a sculpture of mixed-media mittens hanging from so-called “idiot strings” like a heartbreaking mobile. Yaptik, a member of the Nenets Tribe who grew up in Northern Arctic Russia, produces a visceral reaction with graphic photographs, film, and text grappling with identity and familial trauma.

Despite the show coming together in the face of impossible odds, there are reminders of what was lost, the chances for collaboration, and the programming connecting audiences with the artists (some of which will still happen as the weeks progress). This comes through in “The Artist’s Uniform,” a work by a Russian artist whose name and bio was redacted “for safety of themself and family.”

Here we see literal remnants of a project never realized, hanging or folded fabric originally intended to be sewn into clothing for all the Pop-Aganda artists. The piece, which includes an abandoned sewing machine, serves as a reminder that, as people scramble to take sides and make declarations in the face of conflict, they overlook the human lives at stake and the complex history that got us here, ultimately leading the biggest loss, that of basic humanity.
Pop-Aganda: Revolution & Iconography. Mattress Factory. 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side. Included with museum admission. mattress.org/pop-aganda

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