The success or failure of an art exhibition is often as much attributable to the curator who organizes the show as it is to the artists represented.
Exhibitions of historic art, which could seem musty or repetitious, may shine when emphasis is given to new research, or by juxtaposing unlikely artists to suggest new insights.
Contemporary shows create additional challenges. The numbers of artists are vast, the means of expression extremely diverse, works are untested by time, and the definition of what constitutes 21st-century art is arguably fluid.
A curator generally has a theme in mind, which may be as specific as a particular medium or time period, or as broad as a philosophical notion, as was the last Carnegie International, "Life on Mars."
Measures of success include how well that theme is supported (subtly or overtly), balance among the works and, most significantly, the quality of the artworks themselves.
With "Cluster," at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, curator Adam Welch has succeeded admirably by any measure, presenting an exhibition that engages, with consistently strong work that shouts contemporary.
Jason Lee, a faculty member at West Virginia University, Morgantown, takes on the increasingly sterile environments we occupy in the installation "Euthenic Set: Suburban Landscape" from his "Studies in Modern Euthenics" series. Plastic picket fences, saccharine representations of clouds, and enclosed patches of back-lit, photographed grass project landscapes that are as sedate as a lobotomy.
Illustrator and multimedia artist David Pohl accesses a far more spiritual realm using a Spirograph (a 1960s child's drawing toy) to create a calming, if ornate, wall-sized representation of Hindu God "Ganesh," part of his "Loop Yoga Project."
"Poppy Field," by Indiana University of Pennsylvania faculty member Kyle Houser, comprises small white ceramic forms sporting red poppy decals and gold luster trim set upon a green flocking field. Superficially cheery, the piece also calls to mind the illicit fields of Afghanistan, or Latin America, that make headlines, or, from an earlier era, the poppies of the great World War I poem by Canadian Army physician John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields."
Splendid video works by Julie Perini, teaching at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, and Robert Ladislas Derr of Ohio State University, address role models within an art context.
Ms. Perini found inspiration for "Suffragette Slasher" in the little-known early 20th-century militants who slashed paintings in museums to protest patriarchal culture. In "Ideology," Mr. Derr endures pelleting by paintballs to challenge the myth of male artist masculinity epitomized by the likes of action painter Jackson Pollock.
Johnstown artist Jacob Koestler, on the other hand, photographs unblinking, uncompromising masculinity in the byways of our Appalachian region.
Jacob Ciocci, founding member of Paper Rad, sets up a ingenious dialogue between two media in "Trapped and Frozen Forever," rendered as HD video and painting. While he observes that the Internet has blurred the line between static and animated images, he does allow that a distinction remains between electronic and painted imagery:
"The physical image stares at the electronic image, and the electronic image stares back. They long to pass through the portal into the other's world but it is impossible. You are either one or the other," he says in an artist's statement.
These are a sampling. Equally provocative are works by Dee Briggs, Brian Brown, Connie Cantor, Nayda Collazo-Llorens, Sean Derry, Will Giannotti, Ben Kehoe, Amanda Long, David Montano, Michael Sherwin, Eric Stern, Anita Sulimanovic and Lenore Thomas.
Mr. Welch is an accomplished artist in his own right, having exhibited regularly in Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annuals and, most recently, in a substantial solo exhibition at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's 709 Penn Gallery. He was the PCA 2008 Emerging Artist of the Year, and received the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts 2009 Individual Artists Fellowship in Installation/Sculpture.
He holds a bachelor's degree from SUNY Stony Brook University and an master's in fine arts from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
This is Mr. Welch's first major exhibition since becoming the PCA/Pittsburgh Filmmakers curator, and it establishes him as both thoughtful and in touch. It also adds to the credibility of PCA/PF as venues for serious local artists and illustrates that art being made in the region is worth both viewing and collecting.
A free gallery brochure that includes color images of artworks and artist biographical information is another indication of the professional ethic Mr. Welch abides by.
The exhibition title comes from an approach used by scientists to simplify, consolidate and coalesce data, trimming overwhelming amounts of information into more manageable models for study. Similarly, Mr. Welch provides a representational, select cluster of contemporary expression to ponder.
Whether one wishes to encounter them as individual works or as part of a larger dialogue, the artworks in this exhibition offer a good return on time invested.
"The Dialogue Series" continues tomorrow (cash bar opens at 5 p.m.; discussion 6 p.m.) with Mr. Welch and exhibiting artists Dee Briggs, Connie Cantor, David Pohl and Jacob Ciocci (free).
"Cluster" continues through March 28 at 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, and until 7 p.m. Thursdays. Information: 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org.
The colorful morphing imagery playing like a kinetic kaleidoscope across four screens of "Drawing on The Phone," by Kitty Spangler and Tiffany Whitfield, employ the most contemporary medium in "Exchange: Emerging and Experienced Artists Come Together" at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Gallery, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown.
All the more reason to regret leaving the artists' names out of my Sunday article, which listed everyone else exhibiting. The show continues through April 18.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1925. First Published March 10, 2010 5:00 AM