When graphic designer Brett Yasko asked the local arts community to participate in a new group photography exhibit, now on view at SPACE Gallery, the theme was simple: secret.
“That was it: one word,” says Renee Rosensteel, one of the 87 featured artists (and an occasional CP freelancer).
The theme also defined the show overall, from its conception to its soft opening on May 31 in advance of its Three River Arts Festival debut. The artists had no idea who else was showing and were instructed not to talk about the exhibit. Even the title, — — — — — —, a series of em dashes, was designed to offer no clues as to what would be displayed.
And, of course, there’s the exhibit itself, an astonishingly diverse collection of 1,921 photos. Each artist snapped through a roll of 35mm film (some used regular cameras, while others, like artist Kristen Letts Kovak, used point-and-shoot disposables), and handed it off to Yasko, undeveloped. The images would not be revealed until the show opened, meaning the artists would first see their images at the same time as the audience.
The photos are also not labeled in a traditional way (in lieu of signage, a monitor flashes each set of photos with the artist’s name digitally scribbled over them), creating something “almost like a scavenger hunt,” says participating artist Jennifer Baron.
“I guess the whole thing is just about not knowing on a bunch of different levels,” says Yasko.
He sees the project as a truly democratic experience, especially in the way the work is presented. Strips of photos from each roll are lined up along the walls of the gallery, giving each artist equal space. In another room, a projector runs a large slide show of the photos, giving time for each one to exist on its own.
“When you look at the work as a whole, your eyes just sort of blur, because it can be a little overwhelming to see thousands of these photographs,” says Yasko. “If you spend time with it, you’ll go into these select shots and see how remarkable those photos are.”
Yasko sees the show as a follow-up to his previous experimental project, a 2016 exhibit featuring 250 individual portraits of the late artist, John Riegert. In a somewhat haunting turn, Riegert, who had agreed to be in the show before he died by suicide in November 2018, is featured through a roll of film discovered in the artist’s house following his death.
“I wasn't sure if he had intended it for this project,” says Yasko. “But there it was, all alone by his chair.”
Unlike the Riegert show, for which Yasko reached out to Pittsburgh artists representing various skill levels and mediums, the current one was more selective, as he chose people he saw as “really good” photographers, or artists who also use photography in their work. While many agreed, others declined.
“A lot of people said no because they weren’t going to be able to edit it or Photoshop it or crop it or color adjust it,” says Yasko. “They were giving up basically all the control beyond framing the shot in the camera.”
The project presented a lot of challenges for the chosen artists, including Rosensteel, who, prior to this, had not shot with 35mm film in 20 years.
“It was one of those things like, 'Wow, this could be really cool, or it could be really bad,'” she says. “But I knew [Yasko’s] reputation and worked with him in 'The John Show.' I knew that whatever he did was going to be really good, so I trusted him.”
— — — — — —. Continues through Sun., Aug. 4. SPACE Gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Free. www.spacepittsburgh.org
Each artist took a different approach in depicting what the term “secret” meant to them. Rosensteel bought a 1960s Russian toy camera and shot an old, gutted sewing machine, in which she placed various items and “different little slivers of things I never really talked about before.” Lori Hepner used an old underwater film camera to create a secret message with both text and gestures, leaving it up to the viewer to decode it.
While Yasko hesitates to express his hopes for the show, he’s more than grateful that the artists he worked with agreed to go along for the ride.
“I really see this show as primarily for these 87 people who participated,” says Yasko. “That experience of them just walking in and just seeing something for the first time that’s their work, and hearing their voice. For me, that’s really what’s most important about this project.”