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Los Angeles to Pittsburgh: Guest Curating from a City in Transition

It was a quick, first hit of Pittsburgh and there was hardly time for me to form an initial impression. I just had one afternoon and subsequent morning of visuals to ground me. Tasked with jurying a large number of submissions for the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh (AAP) annual exhibition in a very short time, the visit had that whirlwind feeling—a brief blitz, but not at all unpleasant. Bookending my focused, mostly solitary review sessions and weighing the exhibition hopefuls against each other (i.e., “curating”), I glimpsed the city mainly through a car window: I was driven from hotel to museum, from museum to cold derelict warehouse with art laid out on the ground, from warehouse to Thai restaurant, from museum to the new Ace Hotel.

I saw evidence of the construction boom taking place, pockets of incipient urban renewal, and buzzed-about restaurants each reflecting broad trends. I kept hearing about how tech was revitalizing the city, with offices for Google, Uber, and other firms relocating near the universities. I’ve lived nearly my entire life in Los Angeles and I still can’t say anything definitive about it, I always need to couch and qualify my assessments. The more you know about a city, the harder it is to declare plainly.

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Associated Artists of Pittsburgh 105th Annual Exhibition on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Pittsburgh felt big in the way that every place is complicated. It doesn’t take much for this to feel like a lot to me since, like most people, I’m permanently traumatized by new awarenesses of ever-more enormous and inhuman quantities of things in our world—ridiculous, frightening amounts of data, waste, pictures, money, people, bodies, dead animal bodies, methane, carbon, light years. Everything starts to look like too much, too many for this earth.

No, my visit was not especially about particularity of place despite Pittsburgh being new to me. I would be hard pressed to identify, for example, a unique regional style or distinctive sensibility across the many artworks submitted anonymously by AAP artists for my consideration. The broad typologies of style and taste, or their idiosyncratic deviations, were already familiar to me in a general sense and spoke of common, geographically unspecific registers of parallel “art worlds” spread across the country.

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Left to right: Jennifer Nagle Myers, Waterfall Vision, 2016; Travis Mitzel, 9’x12′ of Plastic Fall 2014 Near a Parking Lot in Southwestern PA, 2014; 9’x12′ of Plastic Fall 2015 Near a Deer Trail in Southwestern PA, 2015. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

The jurying experience ended up being a lot about switching rapidly between different registers (of taste, of modality, of reference), negotiating collisions and destabilizations of taste as I moved between artworks and tried to consider each on its own visual terms. The confusion caused by such enjambment felt productive—the selection I made, my resulting response.

What I learned (from looking at objects in person and digital slides on a laptop) about the kinds of artists who make up the association’s membership was immediately limited by the anonymity of each submission. On the one hand, I tend not to be able to look as hard or as generatively at an image or artwork in a vacuum, without any informing context—again the contemporary problem of too-much-ness, too many unmoored images to reckon with or think about what they could mean. On the other hand, I fully support and cheer the unknowability, defamiliarization, and out-of-the-blue-ness that lies at the heart of the best art.

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Left to right: Ivette Spradlin, Alisha, 2013; Carole Stremple, I Got All My Sisters, 2016. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)
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Left to right: Bob Ziller, William Blake, 2016; Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer, Distinguida Damisela, 2014; Susan Kemenyffy, Waiting, 2016; Chuck Johnson, Rooster Stela, 2015. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Many individual works in the warehouse stood out and stuck with me, like the strange surreal, almost fairy tale painting of deep rows of tall, skinny brick housing towers, each be-moated. Or the set of colorful towers of dyed phone books with their formal elegance and sense of accumulation, thickness, and structured excess. Or that amazing, tightly painted desert scene of a man sketching or writing in the oculus formed under a rock arch, small shrubs casting long shadows in the middle distance, clouds in the sky. Or the simple, modest photographs of a large plastic tarp tossed in relief over dark shrubbery in a verdant landscape. Or the humor of a William Blake–headed lamb painted against blue sky and green grass. Or the small bronze sculpture of interlocking quasi-figurative bits in which I spot a wizened walnut or dried lime and a back-bending fish flipping its tail overhead. Or the seated terracotta figure that opens up to reveal an anatomy made up of miniature figurines, tiny Venus of Willendorfs. Or the polka-dot field painting of women bent over collecting what look like flowers in an orchard. In fact, several pieces that disturbed me for various reasons and did not make it in the show have also stuck stubbornly with me—small shocks that linger despite a preference to forget.

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Left to right: Katie Murken, Continua, 2011; Laurie Trok, God is in the Forest Counting Trees, 2015; Gary Jurysta, Blooming Membrane, 2015. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

But more than any single item cherry-picked from its maker’s practice and thrown in, defenseless, to drown or float in the crowd, I care about the psychology and durational trajectory of an artist—how and why she forges a line of inquiry to sustain herself over time, how and why she manifests her time consciously or not. I care about all of the relationships between works, the motivations and struggles behind them, the fallout or ramifications that emanate invisibly from art.

Unfamiliar with the artists included in the exhibition, I was excited and heartened to encounter so many individual and divergent artistic practices that are otherwise dispersed beyond my radar. I’m always inspired and buoyed by the prospect of what J.D. Salinger called private readers, thinkers and makers driven by a personal pleasure that has to do with thinking and being alone. I fetishize an art with internal rather than external ambition. I cheer the wonderful anonymity and self-contained aspects of choosing to live as an artist, a highly sensitive citizen full of secret labors and applied obsessions.

Associated Artists of Pittsburgh 105th Annual Exhibition is on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art through August 15, 2016. Image (top): Mia Tarducci, Floor (Details), 2016.

  • Bob Ziller

    You did an excellent job in curating the show (and I’m not just saying that because I painted the William Blake lamb that humored you … lol). I really enjoy the intuitive groupings, too – one can see where you had fun free-associating while orchestrating the hanging of the show. I like that Mr. Blake is residing among a menagerie. Congratulations on a job well done!