With the 2013 Carnegie International's opening less than a week away, Carnegie Museum of Art is in high gear.
Co-curators Tina Kukielski and Dan Byers carved out time one recent morning to talk with a reporter, putting on hold texts and calls from art installers and other museum staff eager for their input. The third curator, Daniel Baumann, had to leave when New York artist Wade Guyton arrived from the airport to oversee the placement of five works he'd created for the exhibition.
The International opens Saturday and continues through March 16, 2014, at the museum in Oakland.
Works began coming in around Christmas, and the museum has received 33 shipments including approximately 110 crates and 30 bins or slipcases.
For weeks, museum staff members have been transforming galleries behind covered doors -- reconfiguring walls, painting, and installing artworks. Now that activity has spilled into public spaces, giving visitors an early peek at some of the big show's art.
By Saturday, the scaffolding, tools, crates and dust balls will have vanished and the work of 35 individual artists and collaborations from 19 countries will occupy center stage.
The Carnegie International, founded in 1896 by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, is the second oldest international survey of contemporary art in the world and one of the most prestigious. Planning for this 56th iteration began about three years ago when Mr. Baumann, 46, Mr. Byers, 32, and Ms. Kukielski, 34, met to discuss their strategy for developing the exhibition.
Since then they have together or individually traveled to more than 50 cities, from Barcelona to Bogota, in more than 25 countries on five continents. They've seen countless exhibitions including several of the large international exhibitions that were inspired by the successes of the Carnegie International and the Venice Bienalle, which itself prompted Mr. Carnegie's instruction a century ago to establish such a show for Pittsburgh. Highlights the curators noted included Venice, Documenta (in Kassel, Germany), Art Basel (Switzerland), and the Istanbul (Turkey), Sao Paulo (Brazil) and Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) biennials.
All considered, this International is looking good and appears to be coming together earlier than many.
The case could be made that the exhibition actually opened somewhat surreptitiously in the summer of 2011 when events began at the Lawrenceville apartment the museum rented to give the International an off-museum presence. It continued its soft opening in April when giggling children began exploring the bright yellow-and-orange Lozziwurm playground in front of the museum. Then in June, the curators did an extensive re-hang of the modern and contemporary portion of the museum's permanent collection, highlighting works purchased from past Internationals. The curators consider this an integral part of CI13.
Couple the above with the curators' ongoing blogging (http://ci13.cmoa.org) about Pittsburgh art and culture and their travel experiences, which began early in their tenures, and you have numerous opportunities to experience the exhibition way ahead of the official calendar.
All are an indication of how very different this International is than any in the past. Up front, the accessibility and engagement with community that these young curators have exhibited is unprecedented and complements a policy of transparency that was declared by Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevanski shortly after her arrival in 2009.
"Lynn wanted all of us to live in Pittsburgh," Ms. Kukielski said, "and feel committed to making something happen here. By nature -- we're three -- we have more potential to be engaged."
It also meant reconciling three visions for the exhibition. Occasionally an International has had two curators, but this is the first time there are three.
"It's a three-part diagram," Mr. Byers said. "There's this little sweet spot where the three of us were all aligned."
They all, for example, owned the same book by exhibiting artist Joel Sternfeld. "Beyond that, we immediately clicked over some artists," he said.
At other times one or two curators would champion an artist and after discussion sometimes change the others' minds, which Mr. Byers deemed a benefit.
"You see artwork in a new way, which is really hard for a curator [with expertise in another area]. We were our first audience providing built-in criticism and reception."
Very broad goalposts
The process of elimination and inclusion was made easier "once a few anchors were set," Mr. Byers said. The exhibition took form between those "very broad goalposts" that the committed-to pieces defined.
The Forbes Avenue playground and related display in the Heinz Architectural Center is a "central core of the show," Mr. Byers said. On one level this conflation of architecture and public design raises the issue of use of public space -- Who uses it? How is it used? How does it change behavior? Playgrounds are sites where people become socialized, "where different people and behaviors exist in a choreographed way," and as such they harbor elements of "risk and confrontation," he said.
On another level, the playground symbolizes "the power of art to change our thinking," Ms. Kukielski said. The idea of risk, encapsulated in the playground, runs through the exhibition, subtly encouraging visitors to push themselves to their limits, embrace risk and find empowerment, she explained.
"We're really interested in what art can do in people's lives," Mr. Byers said, "art in and outside museums; art that affects you emotionally, psychologically, practically; art that makes you think critically; artwork as activist projects. The functions art can serve beyond pleasure."
To that end, and to represent the breadth of global art in the 21st century, the curators selected a diverse list of artists. Dinh Q. Le incorporates sketches made in the jungles of Vietnam during the war that is "so much bigger than just paintings on a wall," Mr. Byers said.
The curators pointed out that they are also interested in contemporary expression such as the large abstract panels of Mr. Guyton, a solo exhibitor at the Whitney Museum of American Art last year; Mr. Sternfeld's photographs of utopian communities that have an environmental bent; Guo Fengyi's fastidious drawings made to aid healing; and Joseph Yoakum's images of "the America of myth and wonder and strangeness, an old America that's gone."
Homestead, Braddock in play
There are two off-campus sites, both of which extend this high art production into traditional communities that have suffered since the decline of the steel industry. Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss has set up a storefront studio in Homestead where she makes portraits of residents and former Homestead Steel Works employees. The Transformazium -- a collective of artists based in Braddock and the first local artists to be included in an International in recent memory -- has created an Art Lending Collection in partnership with the Braddock Carnegie Library.
"The Internet allows things to travel fast now," Mr. Baumann said in a previous interview. Whereas in the 1960s it could take a half year for ideas or images to circulate, "now it takes seconds." A downside of that free exchange is that it contributes to a leveling.
"Everything looks the same. That's something we tried to react against -- going for diversity instead of uniformity.
"Of 35 artists you might not like some, and that's certainly fine. When I look at music, restaurants, films, I like some better than others, and that's a normal thing."
Once the final cut of artists was made, the exhibition took form in the abstract. But to be successful it has to work in physical space. As the artworks are placed, the curators said they have been pleased with the ways they are relating to one another, starting new conversations instigated by their juxtapositions, highlighting differences and similarities.
"People in Tehran and Philadelphia and Krakow may be connected by Facebook or Google, but there are differences. The artists in this show reflect the texture of the life that surrounds them," Mr. Byers said.
To achieve what Ms. Kukielski referred to as "moments of intense juxtaposition," some of the privileging that artworks usually receive is missing. Every artist will not have his or her own space, for example, but rather be "in dialogue with the architecture or with visitors or with the smell of the space," Mr. Byers said.
"No sanctity," Ms. Kukielski added.
"Everything is mongrel and mixed," he said.
Ultimately the purpose of this careful positioning is to amplify the voice of artist and artwork as visitors make connections between self-contained bodies of work that may at first seem to have no common denominator.
There will be ample material to compare as several artists, such as Nicole Eisenman, are represented with multiple works.
"We've included paintings from the 1990s to the present and also sculpture," Ms. Kukielski said. "It's like a mini-retrospective. The same with Vincent Fecteau. And [Yugoslavian artist] Mladen Stilinovic. He's had a long career but hasn't been seen here."
The International reflects the range of expression that contemporary artists employ including painting, sculpture, film, installation, video, photography and, on Saturday, performance. Software has joined the brush as a tool in artist studios and "new media" is no longer new.
"We're the inheritors of videos being fully integrated into artists' practice. Same with photography," Ms. Kukielski said. "It's just the way that we live today."
"The video art isn't really about being video," said Mr. Byers, contrasting today's usage with the medium's novelty in the 1970s.
The curators kept visitors in mind as they defined the parameters of their show. Ms. Kukielski, recalling one large exhibition that included 40 hours of film, said of this International:
"You can see it all in a day. That was important to us."artarchitecture
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925. First Published September 29, 2013 4:00 AM