Friday, November 24, 2006

Gestures Have Meaning

I am pretty apprehensive about making this post but I feel strongly that I should. I have a fairly marginal gallery in a small town that I have only been in for a little more than two years so, for a long time I felt afraid to rock the boat here. But, much more importantly I thought I was too uninformed and too much of a newcomer to start making snap judgments and throwing stones. I now think that I can't afford not to. This post is not at all directed specifically at the Mattress Factory, which has likely the best record of respecting and supporting Pittsburgh artists and taking their work seriously. The statement made by the latest Gestures show in the context of Pittsburgh's cultural history is something that should be examined closely for the message it sends.

The Gestures shows are an ongoing series of exhibits featuring site specific installations by a variety of artists and also people not generally known as artists, with most exhibits using the Mattress Factory's annex space. People considered for the shows are contacted usually not more than a month before and given limited time to install with the goal of informal, out of the box shows. In theory and to a large extent in practice, the idea is absolutely great. Who wouldn't want to see, famous artists that we see all the time and other people forced to adapt and create within tight constraints? To take people who often have a year or more to work towards shows into this kind of situation is likely to be fascinating.

The problem I have with these shows has to be set into context. One thing that stands out in Pittsburgh’s scene is it’s segmentation; everyone and everything has it’s proper place and it doesn’t take long to see where they are. Wood Street Gallery shows national acts, while Space gallery shows local artists. In institutions like the Society for Contemporary Craft, the bulk of local artist’s are consigned to the craft shop while the Center for the Arts, overwhelmingly shows local artist members of various guilds. For institutions like the Warhol or the Carnegie, the annual AAP show constitutes the bulk of their commitment to local artists or at least living local artists.

To a great extent, The Mattress Factory was the exception to that rule. They seem to work hard at being both at having a place that can be both respected on an international level for the quality of it’s shows while at the same time giving important consideration to local artists. The recent Gestures show demonstrates a scary trend. The list of artist’s in this show is full of people who have paid their dues and are fully deserving of a full Mattress Factory show. The idea of these shows as very low key experimental labs is understood as is the fact that a show scheduled on short notice is most easily done with a local artist but, the degrading and dark history of Pittsburgh’s art history cannot be forgotten and these shows cannot be removed from their context. The real risk is emerging that these shows are evolving into the backdoor ghetto for local artists.


marceye said...

Isn't that what local artists can usually afford? Backdoor ghetto, or what is it you are suggesting?
Do you have any more info on tha Gesture experiment at the factory? Any links or articals? At this point isn't any outlet for all local working artists good? And the artists them selves are choosing to confused john, tell us more.

John Morris said...

First, I want to say that the Mattress Factory has been the major place in town most supportive of local artists. The regular Mattress Factory shows often include them as well as many Pittsburgh alumni artist's and they have done great stuff like giving Tom Sarver space for the Tom Museum.

Like I said, it's the context that makes this important. The nice thing about the Mattress factory shows was that they integrated both worlds. Mixing artists from around the world together sends the message that some local artists are at that level and worthy of being part of the global dialog. It also helps to keep a high standard for people to reach for and this is something the Matress Factory does well. That is the normal way of the art world, artists get into new shows and build relationships largly based on the shows they are in. If an artist from L.A. or Germany likes the work of an artist from Pittsburgh they were in a show with, they might help get them into a show outside of Pittsburgh and the same process works for press and collector recognition.

Separating Pittsburgh artist's out into another space greatly reduces the interaction and attention they are likely to recieve. I think that this is one of the major factors in Pittsburgh's cultural isolation. A lot of the spaces that Pittsburgh artist's show in like the Center for the arts and Space Gallery, downtown are very nice spaces- perhaps even beter than a lot of the ones given to mostly non Pittsbugh artists, but isolating them sends a powerfull message about whether the work should be taken seriously.

Susan Constanse said...

I am so glad that you clarified this a bit, John. I admit, I wasn't all that sure I understood the point you were making. marseye makes an excellent point, though. If you are a beggar at the door, you won't exactly turn your nose up at the table scraps.

Pittsburgh's art scene is very fractured. Even when you take into consideration that these exhibits are not exactly going to get you attention outside the Southwest Pennsylvania region, the venues you have cited have a limited scope and are not seeing anything beyond what is directly in front of them.

John Morris said...

Since I have been here, I have been trying to explain the level of cultural isolation and the circular dead end nature of most art careers here. What happens in Pittsburgh stays in Pittsburgh. First, I want to acknowledge that the only other place I know well, first hand is NY and that is a tough comparison. But, from what I can see, when compared to most mid sized cities, and certainly to cities with as many major cultural and educational institutions- the level of isolation disturbing. I don’t think that this is something that can be explained by lack of exhibition spaces or lack of funding because, for a city of it’s size, there is a lot of money spent. I also don’t think that a general lack of nice exhibition spaces is a major factor. In fact on a relative basis, getting into some type of show here is much easier than in most places for local artists.

The spread out and inconvenient nature of things explains a lot, as does the basic lack of marketing to people out of town ( look at how few institutions list themselves in the Mid Atlantic Gallery guide and how few images and info is on most cultural websites and the lack of web links or any kind of city wide guide. ) But, I think the “separate but equal” situation in which there are relatively few spaces that regularly mix, Pittsburgh and non Pittsburgh artists is one of the biggest factors. When, you look at exhibition spaces in most cities ( and I have looked at a lot online as well visited some ) what you see is a lot of shows – some of which are touring- that mix local and non local artists. This creates links with other cities – artist’s come to see and install their shows, and critics, writers, collectors and other artists who follow those artists pay attention to what’s going on. This interaction often leads to press attention and the chance that local artists will be invited into shows in other cities and all kinds of “buzz”. If I ask people in the art world in other cities, which places they have heard of here- they almost always know the ones that regularly show out of town artists. Quite a few NY dealers seem to know Wood Street Gallery, but few know about Space or the Center For the Arts ( though they are kind of better exhibitions spaces and bigger )

Artist’s here have to question whether this “separate but equal” system is really in their interest and what it’s full effects are. There is no doubt that on some level it may mean more exhibition space available to local artists than there might be otherwise. But, it also undermines the whole purpose of showing ones work and having it taken seriously on more than a local level.