Pittsburgh’s Room to Breathe: The Pittsburgh Biennial at Carnegie Museum of Art opens Thursday, June 16
The Pittsburgh Biennial at Carnegie Museum of Art opens with a Culture Club event from 5:30 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 16. The museum is one of five co-presenting venues, including Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, The Andy Warhol Museum, and the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University.
Even on a cursory first walk-through Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Galleries, it’s obvious that Fabrizio Gerbino’s paintings live for these walls. For his contribution to the Pittsburgh Biennial, the Italian painter—a Pittsburgh resident for the past decade—has contributed a roomful of large canvases decked in muted grays, dulled browns, and clay-like ocher. In the tighter space of a small commercial gallery or the dark lighting of Pittsburgh’s thriving network of non-profit spaces, Gerbino’s paintings would be beautiful but claustrophobic. His figures—workers, painted mostly from the back, as un-posed participants—would be crunched within their own frames.
On their own in a spacious room full of vast white walls and white light, Gerbino’s paintings become vast themselves—they open up as landscapes of the life of labor, annexing the wall rather than sitting upon it. Far from claustrophobic, they become celebratory, if quietly so. Dan Byers, associate curator of contemporary art and organizer of the museum’s segment of the five-part 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial, points out an almost absurd aspect to Gerbino’s paintings: they remind you, he says, “of the reason paintings need walls.”
For Byers, the Heinz Galleries stage is one of the central goals of the Biennial at Carnegie Museum of Art. It’s an opportunity for nine Pittsburgh-tied artists to show their work in the kind of setting that it deserves, and demands. “My selection process for this show was the same as for any show at the museum,” says Byers. “The only difference was the criterion that the pool of artists I looked at needed to have some kind of Pittsburgh tie. But to be any less critical than I would be with the worldwide artists I look at for other Carnegie shows would be a disservice.”
This high bar of quality is perhaps the most important thread running through the five parts of the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial: the curators at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Pittsburgh Filmmakers (whose Biennial shows opened last week to considerable acclaim in the community), the Regina Miller Gallery at CMU, and The Andy Warhol Museum are all dedicated to creating shows of Pittsburgh artists working at an international level.
Not only has Byers organized a show of exciting work by internationally recognized Pittsburgh-related artists, it seems to be a show particularly of work that benefits from the setting the museum offers. Film and video artist Peggy Ahwesh is no stranger to museums, but the environment created by a room dedicated to her work—a video and a video installation including related glass objects—elevates the potential for each piece. Likewise, the opportunity to show Frank Santoro’s paintings alongside his better-known comic-book work (including a new comic available at the show) adds a completely different dimension to his work.
Most important, however, is the creation of a real “conversation” between extremely different artistic visions. Some artists, like Santoro and filmmaker Stephanie Beroes, create quite literally visions of Pittsburgh—its physical, economic, or creative landscapes. But the less literal artistic statements, like ceramist Brandon Boan’s abstract imaginings of his own manual labor (sculptures molded on mops and water-damaged walls), say something imperfectly beautiful about the city. And in the museum’s Pittsburgh Biennial, they say it with a hard-won confidence too-rarely seen.