Coming to grips with contemporary works a matter of perception

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Most people are on board when they look at "The Wreck," Winslow Homer's charged 1896 painting of an oceanside rescue, at Carnegie Museum of Art. But by the time they get to Thomas Schutte's 2008 sculpture "Zombie VIII," in the contemporary galleries, they're often ready to bail.

Confronted with something so unfamiliar, many mistakenly conclude they don't understand contemporary art. However, enjoying it is often just a matter of approaching it differently. Contemporary art is, by definition, of our time, and the viewer is part of the equation.

The 56th Carnegie International, one of the world's oldest and most prestigious exhibitions of international contemporary art, opens Oct. 5 at The Carnegie. Fortunately, the museum has provided a gallery guide for navigating the turns that art has taken over the past century in the form of a recent reinstallation of the modern and contemporary components of the permanent collection that draws heavily on works purchased from past Internationals.

These are identified by bright yellow labels, as with Mr. Schutte's collapsed figurative bronze exhibited in the last International held in 2008. The yellow labels also extend through earlier collection halls, identifying Mr. Homer's painting as having been exhibited in the inaugural International of 1896. By following the yellow trail, and reading the accompanying wall text, a visitor may gain a visual sense of how one form of expression morphed into another. Couple that with an overlay of currently significant issues artists are confronting -- racism, school safety, environment, societal isolation -- and a 21st-century video, painting or installation is no longer inscrutable.

This reinstallation is unique in that it is considered part of the 2013 International and will remain throughout the exhibition with slight changes. One of those was the addition of Phyllida Barlow's massive "untitled: upturnedhouse," a 2013 museum purchase. A temporary work by Ms. Barlow for the museum's Forbes Avenue entry has been commissioned for this fall's International.

Visitors will find other connections to the forthcoming show. One gallery featuring visionary artists displays seven works by Pittsburgh native John Kane including "Scene From the Scottish Highlands" (circa 1927), the first painting by a self-taught artist accepted into an International (1927). Screened elsewhere is Paul Chan's 2000-2003 "Happiness (Finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier)," which references the prolific and reclusive late Darger (2004 International). Two visionary artists, Guo Fengyi and Joseph Yoakum, are represented in the 2013 exhibition.

Another gallery recognizes the importance of film in the museum's collecting history and features rotating programming including work by previous International exhibitors (currently Bruce Conner).

An archives room includes photographs of many Internationals. If you're still having trouble coming to terms with the way art has changed over the past century, compare the fashions in the 1896 and 1960s photographs and art may not seem so far out after all.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?