The Carnegie International: Our critic muses on her favorite works and elements



When asked by an editor to write about my favorite work in the 2013 Carnegie International, I replied that as a critic, I check my personal tastes at exhibition doors.

My observations focus upon the success and relevance of the artworks within the context of the show itself, the broader arena of contemporary expression, and art historical and cultural lineage. But the idea of selecting a favorite was appealing: It introduced a whole new set of criteria by which to view and evaluate the art, including emotional response.

I decided to pick two "favorites" -- the work most meaningful to me and that which was most meaningful to the exhibition.

Choosing a personal favorite was difficult. I'm very drawn to the compulsively rendered, fluid compositions of the late, self-taught artists Guo Fengyi and Joseph Yoakum. For several years, I had sought and photographed the art of self-taughts as part of a project to evaluate human socio-cultural evolution through the evidence of disjunct archetypal symbols. Individuals working outside the mainstream seemed a pure source.

2013 Carnegie International 
Where: Carnegie Museum of Art, Oakland.
Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. today. “Solitude Opus” will be shown at 1 and 4:15 p.m..
Admission: $17.95; seniors $14.95; students and children age 3-18, $11.95; children under 3 and members, free (includes Carnegie Museum of Natural History).
Information: 412-622-3131 and www.cmoa.org.

The artists I was then most intrigued by, however, were those who altered their environments on a grand scale, more akin to Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain in Slab City, Calif., one of several images in CI13 from Joel Sternfeld's "Sweet Earth" series.

For personal favorite, the self-taughts were edged out by the memorable "Solitude Opus," a moving, poetic 19-minute meditation upon aging and acceptance by the eminent Iranian filmmaker Kamran Shirdel, now in his ninth decade. The subject is a man in his 80s who lives humbly on a windswept Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, the caretaker of a defunct facility. He dresses, holds his head and moves about the sparse grounds with dignity; sips a hot drink poured in his tiny quarters with gusto.

As he sits and stares out to the rolling blue-gray waves, what is striking is that he appears totally at peace, someone who has found that richness lies within the moment and asks no more.

My favorite element (rather than work) of the exhibition is the expansion of notions of diversity and inclusiveness. Under one roof are gathered rising contemporary art stars such as Nicole Eisenman and Wade Guyton, players on a global political scale such as Dinh Q. Le and Rokni Haerizadeh, anomalies such as Tezuka Architects and The Playground Project, and community-based projects such as those by Zoe Strauss and Transformazium.

Artists have been working in such variety for decades, but significantly the CI13 curators acknowledged this variety -- institutionalized it -- within this prestigious show and venue. In a similar way, self-taughts were pulled closer to inner art circles by inclusion in the last Venice Biennale.

Visual artists, dancers, composers and others frequently struggle to represent the intangible, and the most successful works are often those that manage to objectify some of the fairy dust they encounter in that realm. That is what these curators have done, through the art displayed and through extensive programming, and it may take a while for viewers to shake out all of the connections.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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