Two installation-type exhibits on display in conjunction with the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival are well worth seeking out. And even though Tom Sarver’s “The Occasional Market” at 707 Penn Gallery and Susan Goethel Campbell’s “Portraits of Air” at 709 Penn Gallery are next door to each other, the two exhibits are worlds apart.
Sarver’s installation is based on his memories of his grandfather’s old neighborhood grocery story, which he has re-created here via drawings, paintings, small assemblage sculptures and text pieces.
“My grandfather was a butcher,” says the Stowe resident. “He owned a small grocery store in the East End of Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, my grandparents moved their home and store to the West End. My only memories of my grandfather are from visits to the shop in the early 1980s. I remember making some of my first doodles on pieces of butcher paper.”
The text pieces in the exhibit are based on stories and sayings told by his grandfather and retold by his mother and other relatives. One is about a customer who wanted to purchase only a pinch of parmesan cheese. “My grandfather sarcastically replied, ‘Why don’t you bring me your plate and I’ll sprinkle some on!’ ” Sarver says.
“According to one of my relatives, one of his common sayings was, ‘If you have a nickel, someone is going try to take that nickel!’ ” A text work hung on one wall displays this quote, scrawled in Sarver’s inimitable style.
Sarver says the stories of the old neighborhood store got him thinking about how consumerism has changed over the past 60 years. “Today, we’re bombarded with advertising at a nauseating rate,” he says. “We can shop free of human interaction. One has to put an effort into finding personalized, neighborhood shopping experiences.”
Three 4-foot by 5-foot collage pieces on the walls reflect the media bombardment that we encounter today. For example, the piece titled “Radioactivity” specifically deals with issues related to the shale gas industry, depicting a well surrounded by doodles and sayings.
“Will the economic benefits of drilling outweigh the long-term environmental impact?” Sarver asked himself before making this piece. “As an artist, I feel obligated to look critically at environmental issues.”
Sarver’s idea for a store-inspired exhibit wouldn’t be complete without displays of “merchandise.”
“I also wanted to have small sculptural objects available for purchase at affordable prices for the beginning art collector,” he says. Many of these items, including “Bound Banana” and “Plastic Tower” are assembled from household items and objects found in the trash.
“Yesterday, a young girl visiting the exhibition with her family asked if I have anything for sale for $2. She was disappointed that the prices start at $40, but was happy to take a free photocopied store flyer of my doodles.”
Since the show opened, Sarver says he has been stopping in occasionally for activities. “I’ve had a puppet-show night for local puppeteers and a collage-making weekend during the International Children’s Festival,” he says. “I’d like to have a sidewalk sale before the show ends.”
Where Sarver’s installation brings to life a local story, Campbell’s “Portraits of Air” is about something everywhere the world over.
“It’s to get people to think about air and how it moves. It’s everywhere, from local to global,” Campbell says.
Focused on the collection of airborne particulates in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, the Detroit-based artist distributed 100 air filters last year during the Three Rivers Arts Festival to volunteers who each were asked to place the filter in a location where they think the air is dirty.
Receiving nearly half of them back, the 8-inch by 10-inch framed, spun-glass air filters line the walls of the gallery. Some were placed on windowsills, some on top of cars, one even close to a dog’s bed.
“What you see here are the results of filters they put in various locations, and I asked them to photograph where they put the filters,” she says.
“Some of the ones I launched in New York three years ago are in here,” Campbell says, pointing to one filter that was placed outside of a Green Gourmet Market in Brooklyn.
The filters and their pictures are accompanied by a poem, both appearing on the wall in written text and played back as spoken word from an earlier recording by the artist.
For Campbell, the project holds a special allure, one that she hopes won’t be lost on the visitor. “The irony for me is that it’s a picture of nothing, but it’s a portrait of air.”
Also on display are two woodblock prints by the artist. The largest of which, “Aerial Landscape: Pittsburgh,” is the first thing visitors will see when entering the gallery. “It’s a woodblock print based on the city of Pittsburgh,” she says, adding, “This is an introduction to thinking about cityscape.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].