Visible through the front window of the Brew House's Space 101, the nearly incandescent paintings of Robert Karstadt's The Illuminations Series emit a radiance that hits the retina and leaves a powerful after-image. Viewed from the street, the paintings are the perfect lure, suggesting an entirely separate, and strangely exalted, world inside.
Illuminations Series and Karstadt's installation "The Ezykele Machine" together comprise the second in the Brew House's gallery-defining Prospectus series curated by Janet McCall, Kim Beck and Dale Luce. Here, the gallery itself is crucial to the work: Were the undated Illuminations shown somewhere smaller, or less panoramic, than the main gallery's 180-degree-plus viewing space, it surely would lose some of its impact.
According to the artist's statement, Illuminations was inspired by an experience Karstadt had in 1984 on a beach in Asbury Park, N.J. Waking there at dawn, Karstadt saw the sun as "a white silver disc," casting light that made the ocean and sky nearly indistinguishable from one another. The sight made Karstadt emotional, and his tears caused a movement of atmospheric colors.
Karstadt, who's based in Pittsburgh, replicates the spectacle in acrylic paint. Whitewashed canvases alternate with others revealing colors that puddle and bleed, but with an intensity muted by a thin glaze of white. Although it lacks a display of traditional draftsmanship or any purely theoretical exploration of color, Illuminations works very well as the translation of an experience.
Meanwhile, set upon the gallery floor with its peacock feathers, tea-spout barometer, pearlescent glass stones and crystalline powders, Karstadt's "Ezykele Machine" is strongly ceremonial in character (though, perhaps unintentionally, also bearing subtle shades of Rube Goldberg). It is intended to be interactive: The work's eight-step "operating" instructions are scrawled knee-high, on an angle, in ballpoint on the nearby wall beneath the last three canvases of Illuminations. The form of these written directions casually suggests a shadow cast by the Machine. Audience engagement with the Machine is intended -- interface helps create for the viewer an active counterpart to Illuminations' passive experience.
A complement to Karstadt's work is exhibited in a small adjoining chamber, the Special Projects room. Although displayed simultaneously with Illuminations and "Ezykele," these recent works by Mark Franchino and Joseph Lupo move away from the emotive and toward the cerebral. And, while they appear less concerned with aesthetics, Franchino's and Lupo's works have their own distilled brilliance.
Lupo is an assistant professor of art at West Virginia University and former studio assistant to hardcore artist-activist Sue Coe. He has created a series of intaglio-rendered store receipts from 2001, which must be carefully considered to recognize their humor and consequence ("11/24/01" shows his somewhat incongruous Kroger purchase of Killian's Red and a box of cereal). The prints achieve his purpose with a certain calculated self-awareness: By using a high-art medium to render an everyday item, he forces the viewer to regard mundane objects in an entirely different light -- a latter-day gloss on Duchamp's "readymades."
The Clarion-based Franchino's work, too, presents prosaic objects for consideration in thought-provoking ways. In "Pillbox," a three-dimensional creation in acrylic and medium-density fiberboard that resembles a medicine cabinet, Franchino has replaced the mirror with an insert displaying a minimalist relief of pill-bottle shapes. It has a clinical-yet-chic look that communicates a sly, if impassive, message connecting pills to personal appearance. "Relieve," a lacquered digital print that carries distinct Pop Art references, shows multiple rows of pill bottles promising "no side effects."
While the diverse works in the two Brew House spaces may be united in their willingness to push aesthetic and conceptual boundaries, the contrast in their approaches is itself engaging. Karstadt's productions are several shades more psychologically opulent, more ritually inclined; Lupo and Franchino, by contrast, pepper their delivery with an incisive, if arid, humor.
The Ezykele Machineand exhibits by Joseph Lupo and Mark Franchino continue through Sat., Feb. 3. Brew House Space 101, 2100 Sarah St., South Side. 412-381-7767 or www.brew-house.org