Linder's renderings of relatives depict universal relationships

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Peering into one of New York artist Joan Linder's paintings in the exhibition "118-60 Metropolitan Avenue" is akin to peeling an onion. Each layer reveals something new, sometimes conflicting -- comfort and tension, photographic realism and artistic distortion, specificity and universality, foreign and familiar. And, by the time you're finished, tears may be running out of your eyes.

The paintings in the series exhibited are of Linder's family, particularly her grandparents, whose apartment was on Metropolitan Avenue in a Jewish working-class neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. But they may very well remind you of someone much closer to home.

The exhibition is at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center, Squirrel Hill, and is accompanied by a small but very fine illustrated catalog ($5). While not alluded to specifically, Linder's father and grandparents are Holocaust survivors, adding another layer, both personal and global, to the reading of the paintings.

It's evident, by the realistic snapshot quality of the images and their frequently black/gray/white palette, that Linder works from photographs, but she's not copying them. Rather, they are takeoff points for her observations of family dynamics, individual temperament and, ultimately, the larger questions of existence itself. They manage to be both touching and abrupt.

The moments she captures are the prosaic fillers that make up much of daily life: pausing in the kitchen to look out the window, washing hands in the bathroom sink, clearing dinnerware from the table, paging through an album.

These are the observed actions that define intimacy -- people engaged in the simple, heroic act of living.

In several paintings Linder has cropped the subjects to zoom in on the psychological element. Body posture and dress tell all that's necessary about "Grandmas II," seated side by side with neither heads nor feet. Similarly speaking volumes are the faceless figures of the four women of "Uncle Arnold," one of them clutching the tri-corner folded flag awarded the widow of a deceased veteran, its deep blue star-studded field the only color on the mostly gray and white canvas.

The humanity of the subjects remind of the inevitability of change and of loss. But sentimentality is tempered.

In "Elijah's Cup," Linder depicts herself as aware of the family preparing a seder meal in the kitchen while she sips wine, apart. A potentially touching small painting of a groom's hand clutching the arm of his bride is titled "Bondage."

Linder takes long looks at what's around her and invites us to a seat at the dinner table.

"Metropolitan" continues through July 15 at the JCC, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. Hours are 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays; 1 to 7 p.m. Saturdays; and 7:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free; 412-521-8011.

Factory lights

Light is a presence -- although only by coincidence and to very different aesthetic effect -- in each of four snappy installations in "Factory Installed," a promising and cleverly titled new exhibition series at the Mattress Factory.

Jason Peters' excellent Minimalist "Dark Matter" and "Even in Darkness There Is Light" are both physical experiences and explorations of perception. In each, large segmented tubes loop and twist from floor to ceiling like rebellious drawings, activating the spaces.

The former is black and resides in a white-walled room flooded with light beaming through frosted windows. The latter, exhibited in velvet blackness, is white and softly glowing due to (unseen) rope lights strung within. Because of our cultural familiarity with the photographic image, we are predisposed to read them as positive and negative. Thus, opposites such as opening and closure, ascent and descent, also come to mind upon leaving one gallery and entering another. Which value one assigns each room/color may change dependent upon which is first seen.

A similarly engrossing experience is had in Natascha Ampunant's "Same Place in October (Leaning)," wherein one steps less into a room than into a mind creating a two-dimensional artwork.

Adjoining rooms -- two lobes? -- are entirely painted white, and the outside light is mostly diffused by shades. Against one wall lean a few minimally colored sticks of lumber; affixed here and there are spare three-dimensional forms; an occasional drawing is hung, or sketched, upon a wall. A video in each room shows a hand doing such things as mark making, or placing a piece of paper for consideration, then withdrawing it.

The installation calls to mind the automatic drawing and dream exploration of the Surrealist. Standing inside it is pretty close to witnessing artistic process as it is being formulated.

Kristine Marx creates a mesmerizing, somewhat Op space pulsing with energy -- "Expanding Magnetic Molten Symmetry" -- through judicious use of two projectors and large sheets of Plexiglas.

Parallel vertical black and white lines break up, travel across the walls and ceiling, and morph into curtains of organic forms, seducing the viewer into a sensitized experience of the room via this motion-filled work.

In contrast, Karyn Olivier's pensive "Grey Lift" is subtle, almost staid. A cut glass chandelier is suspended in the center of one of the building's modest rooms, which is otherwise empty. A circle of the gray floor paint has been removed beneath it to reveal natural wood. Upon this collect wax droppings from five candles that burn continually.

The white candles -- reminiscent of ritual, memory, hope -- are smoke smudged, the residue wax grayed, the chandelier unpolished, it's sparkle dimmed. The light is there, but it is also passing, drip by drip, inevitable, and finite.

Also at Mattress is Ruth Stanford's "In the Dwelling-House," a fascinating interpretation of the abandoned, century-old working-class house at 516 Sampsonia Way, on the exterior of which Stanford installed the extant "What Remains" in 2004. The interior is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays; inquire at main building.

"Factory" continues through Sunday at 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side. Hours are 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $8, students/seniors $5, children under 6 and members free, and half price on Thursdays. 412-231-3169 or www.mattress.org.

"Fanny" (1999) by Joan Linder is part of the exhibition "118-60 Metropolitan Avenue" at the American Jewish Museum of the Jewish Community Center.
Click photo for larger image.Artist Joan Linder captures the substance of ordinary daily life in works such as "Sam."
Click photo for larger image.Joan Linder shows her subjects simply living their lives in "Fanny," above, part of "118-60 Metropolitan Avenue" at the Jewish Community Center's American Jewish Museum.
Click photo for larger image."Even in Darkness, There Is Light" by Jason Peters, above, and "Expanding Magnetic Molten Symmetry"by Kristine Marx, below, are among the installations that explore the presence of light in "Factory Installed" at the Mattress Factory, which is showing through Sunday.
Click photo for larger image.
Click photo for larger image.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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