Last week's announcement that Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino is creating a 20-foot-high Heinz Endowments-funded sculpture for Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary has people asking who he is.
Anticipating that curiosity and interest, The Andy Warhol Museum organized a stimulating exhibition that would merit attention even if Kaino weren't coming next month to install his towering work Downtown.
"Transformer: The Art of Glenn Kaino" comprises 13 works encompassing mixed-media wall pieces, sculpture and installation. "Transformer" is also the title of the large, if temporary, steel and fiberglass sculpture he's creating -- but its name is "Arch."
If this begins to sound a bit complicated, it's reflective of the fact that Kaino (pronounced Ki-No) is at home with large ideas, wandering between humor and steely-eyed social critique.
His aesthetic is at times carnivalesque, as in a room-sized Rube Goldberg-like work, and at times elegant, as in the "Invisible Dragon" series made of "kitbashed" plastic model parts mounted on entomology pins that are anchored in a white sculpted wood frame. Transformed, one might say.
The former, "Simple System for Dimensional Transformation," begins with a small green origami crane whose wings flap in a heartbeat rhythm, tugging on an attached string that makes its way through a wall. On the other side, it threads through various devices that appear -- aided by a stream of water pouring from a shower head onto a waterwheel with huge false teeth -- to self-propel in a Goldbergian manner. "Appear" is the operative word, because the water isn't set up as a power source. Instead, the piece becomes a cautionary about appearance vs. reality -- about illusion and deception -- and a commentary on the contemporary acceptance of the simulacrum in place of the actual. "The core," Kaino added by phone from Los Angeles recently, "is about causality."
"Kitbashing," Kaino explained, is the term for taking parts from a model kit and assembling them in a configuration different from the one they were designed for. It's something Hollywood does, for example, when creating special effects for space movies. Besides the "Dragon" series, Kaino employed that method in the "Happened Stuff" series, inspired by wartime looting of Iraqi museums. The rotating, gold-plated, somewhat figural sculptures in turn resemble Kabuki actors, Samuari, rabbits and more. All are fair observations, Kaino said, but the essence of the series is the regenerative and affirmative action of creating alternative artifacts from the detritus of war (in this instance, parts of model tanks).
Kaino, who was born in 1972 in Los Angeles, is Japanese-American, and Japanese cultural references -- such as origami, dragons, Samurai -- show up in his work. But he makes a distinction between formal and conceptual qualities. "My ethnic identity informs the work." The objects are "a material fact. But I'm not exploring ethnic issues."
So the absurdity, even cultural vulgarization, found in an executive desktop Zen garden may have caught the artist's attention, but his related sculpture, "Desktop Operation: There's No Place Like Home (10th Example of Rapid Dominance: Em City)," speaks only tangentially about the contrast between Eastern and Western values therein.
A 14-foot-high sand castle rises out of a not-so-groomed boxed area with oversized rake. Kaino learned to build such large pieces from the 2003 Guinness Book of World Records sand sculpting record-holder.
The piece is a "multilayered critique," Kaino said, ranging from that of the hegemony of architecture to military tactics. Diagrams in the sand suggest a comparison between military campaigns and sports strategies. Kaino planned for the castle's towers to crack and fall as the piece dried, speaking to entropy and to the impermanence of power, of life itself.
The artist's propensity for cultural observation is played out especially keenly in "Learn to Win or Take Losing for Granted," a chess board with bronze chessmen interpreted as hands cast in various symbolic configurations.
Kaino's latest project, which he has been working on "in ernst" for about a year and is due to be officially launched soon, is uber.com. The site, co-founded with entertainment executive Scott Sassa, offers a free opportunity for creative people -- "artists, writers, fashion designers, bloggers" -- to create an online site. "It will allow," Kaino said, "for free systems of expression unmediated by corporate media."
Kaino's sculpture, parts of which resemble Pittsburgh bridges, will be erected in late August at Seventh Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard. So far we've only seen a maquette, but we can predict it will be engaging.
"Transformer," the exhibition, continues through Aug. 31. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and until 10 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $15; seniors $9; children/students $8; Fridays 5-10 p.m. half-price; members free. A catalog will be published in the fall. For information: 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org.
Short films by CI08 artist Wilhelm Sasnal will be screened Saturday at the Carnegie Library-Braddock followed by a reception for a nearby gallery's inaugural exhibition. For more information, check tomorrow's Post-Gazette or visit www.cmoa.org.
Two Pittsburgh-based artists with unique visions, Bovey Lee and Fabrizio Gerbino, will share their thoughts on works in the Carnegie International from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, free with Carnegie Museum admission. (412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org)
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.