I visited Barbara Weissberger's latest show, Muscle-licious! at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, hungry. I was craving some fresh art but didn't know exactly what that meant. When Weissberger's watercolors and kaleidoscopic wall installation greeted me, I knew I'd found it. On closer inspection, these pretty images served up a slow-cooked four-course meal.
The paintings and the wall installation are comprised of segmented parts of bodybuilders -- abs, pecs, calves -- barely recognizable because of their supranaturally boosted conditioning, plus hamburgers, crocheted granny afghans, butterflies, flowers and mushrooms. The nine pieces are painted from cut-out magazine and photographic collages composed by Weissberger. Oranges, pinks, tans, greens, blues ... all huddled and hugging one another, stacked and wrapped -- harmoniously, improbably, united in their disparity.
I particularly love Weissberger's choice of watercolor, a favorite of plein air enthusiasts and nature-lovers. In a recent walk-through of her show, Weissberger said that she likes the lightness and transparency these materials provide, as well as the drips, which expose her process. And it works.
This work isn't ironic. Weissberger is not out to say: Oh, hey, look how retro those afghans are, and isn't it funny that I've put bodybuilders next to butterflies? No. And I love it because I'm tired of irony for irony's sake. What I want is art that makes my brain sweat: I want innovation. Weissberger delivers. Behind this work is a lot of real, old-time insight. Revelations about American culture, explorations of iconic imagery, thoughts about how we perceive our flesh and the flesh of others, and of that which we eat, here in the 21st century.
Weissberger, who has dark hair, a mischievous smile and a quick laugh, cites books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma as instigating this fresh dive into her creative process. It began with a focus on hamburgers and a concurrent series of "grotesques" -- watercolor studies of nearly formless figures -- which led to an obsessive collecting of bodybuilder magazines and continued with afghans and flowers photographed and Photoshopped by the artist to create the source collage each watercolor is based upon.
Weissberger is process-oriented. Ideas nag at her, and then she mulls them over, pulling in what she needs as she goes. The afghans made their way into Muscle-licious after she attended an artist residency in Montana where old-timey crocheted blankets were scattered around the place. They supplied colorful patterns and textures that went well with the muscled flesh she found in Pump and Flex. The butterflies and flowers, she says, debuted when she added a hint of advertising-happiness. "They're emblems of hyper-cheeriness, which creates a curiousness when people start really looking at how these things are put together," says Weissberger. "Familiarity and strangeness. That's what I'm shooting for."
She sees a connection between muscle-magazine flesh and the classic hamburger, because they are both products of culture, not nature. The mushrooms echo the flesh of the bodybuilders and introduce a kind of "life and death" cycle to the pieces as well as create a connection between the super-sized and regular old nature. "The American idea of bigger, better, extreme -- that we can manipulate everything -- is something I wanted to play with," Weissberger says. "I like using the collage form because it brings together elements in a disparate way."
It's clear people in high places are taking note. Weissberger, an art lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh who moved here five years ago, after 13 years in New York City, was awarded a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Weissberger plans future collages. "I see a long trajectory. I find something generous about the collage aspect." Pittsburgh art audiences should be happy to hear this. I for one eagerly anticipate her next serving of delicious, muscle-licious artwork.
Muscle-licous! continues through May 27. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 5300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org