Pittsburgh Biennial 2014 launches at the Carnegie with artist Corey Escoto

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To visit Corey Escoto’‍s solo exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art, most visitors will step off the elevator, go through double doors and enter the first open doorway. I prefer to first walk the length of Gallery 2, “European and American Art c.1760-1820,” passing allegorical portraits, religious subject matter, works created of bronze and oil paint and silver.

Turn into Gallery 1 and beyond its 15th-century saints of limestone and wood, a world opens up that is simultaneously more familiar and less so. Mr. Escoto’‍s installation/exhibition “Sleight of Hand” is, for better or worse, reflective of our century.

The sculptural materials he uses are banal, stripped of their preciousness by ubiquitousness. They include wallpaper, Formica, spray foam, Plexiglas, cardboard, paint rollers, plastic, contact paper, printed vinyl and “cultured marble.” The sculptures are a little flip, a little melancholy.

By placement in this survey museum venue, Mr. Escoto invites comparison with the art historic canon, challenging distinctions between high and low evaluations. By virtue of his profession, artist, he declares them art.

The gallery has been tipped on visual edge by an off-white floor covering that curves up one wall, itself spatially transformed by gradations of blue paint that intensify toward the ceiling but never meet sky in the windowless room.

The first sculpture one encounters is “House of Cards Don’‍t Fall Far From the Tree,” a four-level stack of Plexiglas-mounted digital photographs that leans precariously but, as opposed to a Richard Serra monolith, threatens only itself. Most of the aggregate surface of its boxy base is spongy in contrast to a back panel painted neon red that throws a simmering reflection onto the wall, remarkably sans bulb. This sculpture stands on an island of wood flooring between portions of the overlay floor.

Ten more sculptures populate the larger expanse of white, which whether or not illusion — a component of Mr. Escoto’‍s creative mindset — feels more pliable underfoot than the gallery wood. I say populate because while the works are abstract, their scale and positioning suggest a gathering of figures.

During a presentation at the museum Friday, Mr. Escoto allowed that after living with them for a while in the studio he thinks of them “as figurative in a way,” each having its “own little personality, some more humorous, some less.” Consider, for example, a work titled “Sleeping Solo, Soggy Cereal, Sour Socks.”

That humor gains by balance with critique as in “Soft Rocks, Cut Muenster: A Monument to the 6-Hour Brunch.” The work is formally appealing and could present in a variety of scale, but Mr. Escoto stops short of finesse. On one side the marble-printed silk fabric, held in place by colorful map tacks, doesn’‍t cover the Styrofoam base, like a badly wrapped present. Is the artist calling attention to the illusion behind Oz-like curtains of power, referring to shabby underpinnings of the art economy, or of socio-cultural structures in general? Is he asking the perennial contemporary question, “Why make art?” or “What exactly is art in the 21st century?”

Nearby a form identified in the gallery key only by a gray square (no number or title) is a pedestal covered with flows of yellow, aqua, peach and gray paint that puddle on the floor; the remnant of a concept that dissolved under its own weight?

On the gallery walls are 16 photographic images that are the antithesis of the sculpture. Their size (4 by 5 inches) at first glance belies the patience and technical expertise required to create them. The experimental images were made by blocking out portions of their Fuji Color Instant Film surfaces with stencils and building up the imagery through multiple exposures (as many as 15). Mr. Escoto subverts the instant quality of a Polaroid.

Some depict words (“I’‍m Sorry”); another a faceted gem floating Magritte-like; others the sculptures, inviting back and forth glances between the two- and three-dimensional objects, inviting considerations of constructed reality in art and in life.

A pair of sneakers protrude from a wall of faux shrubbery at the end (or, beginning should you enter here), a stand-in for the artist observing, or maybe consumed by, the world he’‍s trying to make sense of?

“Corey Escoto: Sleight of Hand” is the first part of the 2014 Pittsburgh Biennial, which will spread across eight venues with the last opening occurring Sept. 27. The next part will open from 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

Amanda Donnan, the Carnegie’‍s assistant curator of contemporary art, chose Mr. Escoto for his first solo museum show and first opportunity to exhibit individually in Pittsburgh. The artist, born in 1983 in Amarillo, Texas, has lived here since 2010 and exhibited nationally and internationally.

“Sleight” continues through Sept. 29. Information: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.

Sandbox’‍s final days

“The Sandbox: At Play With the Photobook,” a richly informative participatory installation cum project by artists-in-residence Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar, is winding down with its final stage, “The Life of Objects,” ending Monday at Carnegie Museum of Art. Ms. Catanese and Mr. Panar, owners of Spaces Corners bookshop and gallery in Lawrenceville, champion the photobook as a unique artform distinguished by selection and placement of images contained therein. “The Sandbox” is part of the museum’‍s innovative Hillman Photography Initiative. Themes visited, with relative photobooks available to peruse, include puzzles, social studies, time & place, archives, and science fiction & dreams.

In the same space, images from “A People’‍s History of Pittsburgh” are projected or otherwise presented. Individuals may submit family or historic images electronically or bring photographs to the museum to be scanned during specified times (the next is 10 a.m.-8 p.m.Thursday). Submitted images are displayed on the Hillman Photography Initiative website and may be included in a future print publication. Information: www.nowseethis.org.

 Jo-Anne Bates talk

Jo-Anne Bates will give an artist talk at 6:30 p.m. Friday during the 5:30 to 8 p.m. opening of her exhibition, “Monotype Prints: An Exploration of Color,” at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust 709 Penn Gallery, 709 Penn Ave., Downtown. The prints were inspired by “the incredible colors and textures of the land, the people and their clothing that I experienced during my visit to South Africa,” Ms. Bates said in an artist statement. The exhibition continues through Aug. 31 and is open daily except Mondays.

River of Words

“River of Words,” the first of a series of temporary public artworks planned for the City of Asylum’‍s Garden-to-Garden Trail on the North Side, will debut with a free public reception from 6 to 8:15 p.m. Friday at the Alphabet City Tent, 318 Sampsonia Way. More than 40 North Side residents are participating in the community-wide art installation, hosting “words in residence” on their homes or gardens. “River of Words” was created in residency by Venezuelan artists Carolina Arnal and Gisela Romero and author Israel Centeno, who will speak about the project. The Office of Public Art will lead tours of the artwork at 7 and 7:30 p.m. Information: www.cityofasylumpittsburgh.org.

Unveiling benefits pool

A fundraiser for the Friends of Dormont Pool is centered on the unveiling of a painting of the historic venue by Pittsburgh artist Johno Prascak from 8 to 11 p.m. Aug. 16 at James Gallery, 413 S. Main St., West End. The evening will include beverages and hors d’‍oeuvres and music by pianist Max Leake. Prints of “Dormont Pool” will be available for purchase and the original will be auctioned that night. The evening will also honor Muriel Moreland of the Dormont Historical Society. Tickets, $60 or $100/couple, may be purchased at 412-561-7692 or ShowClix.com. They will be $75 at the door.


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

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