Taking in the Carnegie International ...

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With a stint at art school decades behind me, all I have is intuition and a finely honed appreciation for the absurd to get me through most gallery exhibits.

Because I'm no longer a practicing member of the priesthood of modern painters, the names of the most renowned artists to emerge from the world's garrets and MFA programs in the past two decades aren't exactly on the tip of my tongue.

I've even lost the ability to understand or use much of the jargon of modern art theory, although it used to come second nature to me. Now when I use words like "simulacrum" or "porosity" in mixed company, I can't help laughing at myself as if I've been caught in a lie.

Still, I need periodic infusions of high art just to remind myself that I'm human and not just a cog in an enormous machine. At the risk of sounding reductionistic (cue the laugh track), I've always believed that the point of art is to ask questions without any reasonable expectation of an answer in our lifetime.

Art that resonates beyond the surface does so because it is capable of framing the questions that haunt us in ways we couldn't begin to verbalize. Because art is a visual language, it contains the echoes of our inchoate fears, hopes and dreams. It bypasses our logic-obsessed tongue and goes straight to the gut.

As exhibits go, the 2013 Carnegie International is a relatively low-key affair, perhaps because it is the first to be organized by three curators with distinct visions about what it means to engage the public. Consequently, there is no buzz-generating outrage this time around.

Also missing is an indoor structure or maze for those inclined to get lost in it for hours. Nothing is so out of scale that it reminds us of our mortality or puniness as in previous shows. There is no irreverent portrait of a saint situated on a base of dried elephant dung to complain to one's congressman about. There isn't a single canvas disruptive enough to inspire an unstable security guard to slash it (so far).

With the exception of the Bidoun Library -- a collection of printed matter from comic books to Cold War propaganda about Arabs -- I couldn't help noticing that this is the least hands-on exhibit in recent memory. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The absence of interactive toys and kitsch forces everyone to act like an adult. Meanwhile the gallery guards reinforce the no-touch rule without embarrassment.

In the absence of sensation and hype I was free to float through the galleries, taking it all in without preconceived notions of what to feel. Within seconds, I was struck by South African photographer Zanele Muholi's portrait series "Faces and Phases."

In 2006, Ms. Muholi photographed dozens of proud, yet wary, young people from South Africa and some from Zimbabwe and Botswana who were members of that region's embattled LGBTI communities. Their faces are so beautiful and dignified that any second thoughts they may have had about being photographed can't detract from it. Their bravery is incredibly moving once you realize that they live on a continent where being gay is still a criminal offense in many countries. They were even more an invisible community then than they are now.

In the next gallery, the paintings of Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor threaten to bounce off the walls thanks to their vibrant colors and heavy brush work. Mr. Taylor's furiously expressive renderings of an old man who survived the indignities of Jim Crow and of a young girl wearing an old-fashioned dress and bonnet while standing in front of a cow and a clothesline are unexpectedly powerful.

The shade of blue he uses as background in these and other paintings happens to be my favorite color, so I was emotionally invested from the start. Even the title of the painting of the girl and the cow cracked me up: "Mary had a little ... (that ain't no lamb)"

I sobered up considerably while listening to the random music generated by the crushed and melted down weapons in Mexican artist Pedro Reyes' "Shovels for Guns" exhibit in the Hall of Sculpture. Former instruments of death and murder from the drug war were expertly shaped and converted into musical instruments capable of generating actual notes.

I thought of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle who died late last month. What would he have thought of seeing his handiwork turned into something that could no longer kill at will? Is there such a thing as "art for humanity's sake"?

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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