Director of CMU gallery charts challenging course


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By way of introduction, curator Astria Suparak has given us an astute critique of the proliferation of big-box structures, an immersion in the artist collaborative Yes Men as they challenge a capitalistic system on steroids, and, currently, an overview of the visual expression risen from international movements that pursue social examination and change.

Not bad for the first exhibition season planned by the new director of the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University. It's a portent of things to come and also a window into the persona of this fresh and savvy Los Angeles native. She arrived in Pittsburgh from Syracuse, N.Y., where she was the founding director of Syracuse University's Warehouse Gallery.

Her appointment and programming are also signals from CMU that it's moving full throttle into a leadership role among university and alternative galleries. Suparak was dismissed from the Warehouse for vague reasons in September 2007. While officials denied that the content of her exhibitions influenced their decision, supporters -- who were outraged and many, including the chairs of the university's College of Visual and Performing Arts -- suggest she was let go because of her risk-taking.

Running at the time of her release was "COME ON: Desire Under the Female Gaze," which curator Suparak described as "unabashed explorations and unapologetic articulations of female libido and an attempt to break down the notion of dichotomous gender." A sign posted at the exhibition entry that read "This exhibition contains work generally intended for mature audiences" was there at her supervisor's behest, Suparak told The New York Times.

Yet it is clear when speaking with the Miller director that her intention is not to shock or exploit, but rather to create dialogue, give voice, and shine the light of candor upon political and cultural issues that maintain undeserved power through secrecy and innuendo.

Youthful and petit, Suparak, having just turned 30, has grown a plump resume as artist, curator and director, a conflation of experience that positions her well to straddle the needs of her campus audience and the broader Pittsburgh community that she hopes to reach.

Her institutional accomplishments include organizing exhibitions as an independent curator in locations as widespread and cosmopolitan as Montreal; Liverpool, England; Mexico City; Los Angeles and New York City. She was director and curator of the Pratt [Institute] Film Series from 1997 to 2000. She also served as a member of the City of Syracuse Public Art Commission.

Perhaps even more impressive are her street creds, including taking shows she curated of "film, video, sometimes performance, live music" to atypical venues like roller skating rinks, sports bars, church basements, living rooms and garages. She's toured with bands, and worked with artists as varied as college circuit performance artist Miranda July and seminal videographer Steina Vasulka.

Among her interests Suparak lists "street art, riot grrl ['90s feminist punk] and D.I.Y. aesthetics."

A graduate of prestigious Pratt Institute, Suparak's personal expression includes drawing, film and sculpture, the latter two developed further by stints at Cal Arts, The New School for Social Research (New York), and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And, in the best postmodern spirit, she thinks of her "curatorial practice as an extension of my artistic practice," she says.

Suparak knows the language of campus students and intellectuals, artists and arts administrators, and the public. That will serve her well in achieving one of her goals for the gallery, to "increase its visibility and profile," she says, "on campus and nationally and around the city."

Suparak, who arrived here last March, has begun to travel exhibitions, a first for the Miller, which ideally will be a revenue source but will also extend the gallery's name and reputation. And -- take notice Visitor's Bureau -- fall's exhibitions drew weekenders from as far as Toronto and Los Angeles, as well as neighboring Ohio, West Virginia and New York.

She's redesigned the gallery's first floor, making it more evident and welcoming; launched a new Web site (www.cmu.edu/millergallery); created podcasts, and established a presence on Facebook, Flicker and YouTube.

She has initiated collaborative efforts with other local arts organizations, such as Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Artists Image Resource, which she plans to continue, here and nationally.

Considering that exhibition schedules are set months, if not years, ahead of run dates, Suparak's fall lineup appears particularly prescient. Her subjects converged with national concerns and news, as well as with individual unannounced initiatives such as the Yes Men's sensational "special edition of The New York Times," which hit Manhattan streets while their exhibition was up here. But it's also a reflection of someone tuned in to her times.

"Curating is a practice that can be challenging, illuminating, influential, educational and subversive," Suparak says with a twinkle in her eyes.

The on-target contemporary vision displayed by city newbies like Suparak and Warhol curator Eric Shiner, coupled with the solid reputations of our more traditional institutions, bodes well for Pittsburgh's growth and success, serving residents and adding to the region's attractiveness to new investors.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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