Three solo exhibits currently fill the top floor at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, each with a different contemporary viewpoint.
One of the first exhibits visitors will come to at the top of the steps is “Coming Home,” an installation of hand-drawn, screen-printed fabric furniture pieces made by Philadelphia artist Kay Healy.
Each of the life-size furniture pieces make up specific rooms — a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room, from left to right, respectively — and are based on interviews of four Philadelphians’ descriptions of their childhood homes.
The interviewees come from different neighborhoods, time periods and cultural backgrounds, but each of them has vivid memories of their childhood homes, which is something Healey became interested in after her parents sold her childhood home in Staten Island, N.Y.
“I am very interested in how objects can tell stories and that something as mundane as a salad spinner can embody memories of people, events and periods of one’s life,” Healy says.
The installation is accompanied by descriptive text giving the background for each piece. By documenting and validating the narratives of everyday people in this way, Healy says she has found a way to commemorate and share these stories, which are often overlooked.
“I have found that by talking to people about their experiences, I am able to learn and connect with others and create a sense of community based on our common stories,” she says.
Healy has done a good job of sharing these stories through this installation, which is seen here in its second iteration. It was initially completed for an exhibit in Terminal E in the Philadelphia International Airport, where it was on display earlier this year.
Next to Healy’s installation is an exhibit by another Philadelphia-based artist, Maggie Mills. Titled “Rites of Passage,” the exhibit contains four paintings, all containing children, that are an “observation on how the intersection of nature, industry and technology affects our spaces,” the artist writes in an email.
In the paintings “Skinny City” and “Kingdom,” the children are placed against stark backgrounds that bespeak a post-industrial landscape stripped of all things human.
“I primarily depict children moving through these spaces because they have inherited them, have little control over them, and often navigate them with little or no guidance,” Mills says.
Mills says the title of her exhibit refers to her attraction to the rituals and rites of passage of childhood and the idea of creating a kind of “Wild West” environment for them to occur in.
“As a mother, I find myself often observing these scenarios — parades, school concerts, performances — and am fascinated by how children are simultaneously vulnerable and fearless, and what this implies about the world we are leaving politically, socially and environmentally,” she writes.
Finally, the video “Friday Nights at Guitar Center” by Allison Kaufman will take most by surprise for its sheer gawking value.
A photo and video artist living in New York City, Kaufman was teaching outside of Manhattan between 2009 and 2010 and kept driving on a particular highway between there and New Jersey.
“The highway could have been anywhere in America, filled with big box chain stores as well as a lot of empty storefronts from businesses hit hard by the economic downturn,” Kaufman says. “One store that I kept passing that was still open was Guitar Center. I started thinking about the customers who frequent Guitar Center and other musical-instrument chain stores.”
Correctly assuming they were mostly men with all sorts of levels of musical experience, Kaufman began to spend time in Guitar Center and other stores like it.
“These stores are fascinating to me,” she says. “They are huge and have different sections that perpetuate the fantasy and identity that accompanies playing a particular instrument, be it an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, drums, turntables, etc. People spend a lot of time in these stores, populating the stagelike spaces that have been set up.”
As a commentary on this effect, Kaufman created the video, which features a wide variety of men and boys of various proficiency playing instruments.
“There’s an amazing cacophony of sound and performances happening next to each other and all over the store simultaneously,” Kaufman says of the experience filming the project. “There are people of all ages, and age does not determine skill.”
Kaufman says she would ask to videotape people just as they were, playing whatever instrument and music they had been drawn to in the store.
“In their performance in this public space, I saw an expression of how they were feeling, a projection of who they hoped to be or what they may want or have wanted from life,” she says. “I saw the vulnerability inherent in exhibitionism. I think there is beauty, humanity and sadness in the revelation of our dreams and alter egos, in our desire to be seen and recognized.”
All of that and more is wrapped up in a compelling video, which alone is worth the price of admission.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.