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‘Pittsburgh Biennial’ expands to 2 galleries | TribLIVE.com
Art & Museums

‘Pittsburgh Biennial’ expands to 2 galleries

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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Ron Copeland's installation at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014.

Featuring the work of two dozen artists with Pittsburgh connections, the exhibit “Pittsburgh Biennial 2014” is so chock-full of art it has spilled over from the original planned site, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside, to Pittsburgh Filmmakers in Oakland.

But with a well-planned afternoon, one can get it all in.

Now in its 20th year, this exhibit has grown considerably.

“For some artists, it was necessary to give them more space to realize their ideas,” says the show’s organizer, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts curator Adam Welch.

“What I tried to do this time around was to link Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts by having three artists expand their work into (the Filmmakers’ galleries), as well,” Welch says.

Much of the work is mixed-media or installation-type pieces, which take up a lot of space. They range from the quirky works of Chris Beauregard, whose piece “Smudge” includes a wood ax —handle covered in bundles of the herb sage — that’s slung into a wall, to the downright dangerous, as in Steve Gurysh’s piece, “The Long Cloud,” a print produced from 2 grams of uranium extracted from ore collected by the artist in New Zealand. Luckily, the print is housed under thick plate glass and concrete, and there is a Geiger counter attached to the housing, should you want to check for any leaking radiation.

One of the largest pieces in the exhibit is “The Tranquil Sea and the Ship’s Deck, Featuring Alvion Arnell” by Eli Kessler, which the artist was inspired to create when he came across an image of a houseboat that was made from an oil tank.

“The boat fascinated me because it was novel, but also because it combined the two seemingly opposing substances of oil and water,” Kessler says. “It wasn’t long before I realized that the boat also embodied my interests in role reversal.”

After building a reconstruction of the boat, Kessler decided the sculpture was similar to a stage. “Walking around the boat’s deck became a metaphor for traversing the boundary of the stage and allowed the viewer to access the world of the backstage,” he says.

Thus, on the backside of the piece, visitors will find a video of drag queen Alvion Arnell playing on a mock stage. In the video, Arnell adorns her face with makeup. The viewer witnesses her in a private rehearsal, applying makeup and reciting lines for a monologue titled “A Woman Killed With Kindness.”

“I have always been attracted to the notion of art as counterculture,” Kessler says. “I was attracted to the co-existence of male and female role reversal. I love that gender role reversal has always been accepted in theater.”

Some installation works do not have to be as large to create such a big impact. Those with an architectural or engineering bent will no doubt take delight in Eli Blasko’s piece, “A Plot in Perpetual Flux.”

A floor-to-ceiling lattice-work of interconnected sticks and steps, it looks like an M.C. Escher drawing come to life. Dotted with paper fortune-tellers, of the kind grade-schoolers make, as well as daisies and pillows that reference land and sky, Blasko says the obvious “flow” of the work also relates conceptually with these objects.

“For me, the daisies and the paper fortune-tellers harken back to games I would play as a kid with the ‘she loves me, she loves me not’ game, plucking daisy petals and using fortune-tellers on the school bus to predict what was going to happen that day, who you were going to kiss, etc.,” he says.

“I like that they are objects with this childish association and bring this playful, kind of innocent element into the work. In moving forward with anything, I feel that there’s always something childish and naive about trying to ‘see the future’ exactly, and I used those symbols to suggest that connection.”

Also harkening to his past, Ron Copeland has wallpapered a whole room to house three vignettes, or wall assemblages — “Made From Scratch,” “East End Line” and “Sunny Day Blues” — which each call back to his “rustbelt roots,” having grown up in rural Ohio.

The assemblages are made up of an assortment of complementary items such as luggage, rolling pins, chairs and ladders and found and recycled pieces of wood Copeland painted to look like signs from different eras. “I work with color schemes and fonts that I feel capture the essence of a timeframe while also presenting a specific narrative,” the artist says.

In the case of “The East End Line,” the content is designed to suggest people in different scenarios at a train station the early ’60s. “Some of the text in this piece suggests a heartfelt farewell to a loved one as they are leaving or are left at the station,” Copeland says.

The seemingly chaotic composition of fragmented words and signs in each vignette are meant to be a visualized representation of the sounds, sights and emotions from a specific day, “as if you could see someone else’s memory of that specific moment in time,” Copeland says.

“In a way, with my work, I’m channeling the simpler-times experience in my childhood and that which came before I was born.”

With a plethora of pieces having just as compelling a combination of concept and materials, this exhibit offers a lot to see and experience. So, as mentioned above, an afternoon should be set aside to fully enjoy the efforts of these two dozen equally talented artists.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].

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