British artist Ryan Gander, whose video work "Man on a Bridge" is among those featured at the Carnegie International Exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, talks about "desire lines." It's a term used by city planners and architects to describe the paths people take through public spaces, between or around pre-designed roads and sidewalks. That's what artists often aim to do - short-circuit preconception as they jump the rails of common usage, finding a new, bumpier world. Even if it's only a few degrees away from the old one, a fresh perspective can seem as distant and strange as a private view of another planet. Each of the 40 artists in the latest installment of the Pittsburgh exhibit, titled Life on Mars, strikes off through the waste spaces of contemporary reality in search of a unique sense of his/her own life and times, leaving a sometimes hard-to-decipher trail of material and concept - breadcrumbs and broken branches leading through a thicket of interests or obsessions.
Gander's video is a compilation of 50 10-second sequences showing a man crossing a small bridge in an urban area. Cars are occasionally visible behind him and on the roadway to his left. He walks quickly toward the camera along the sidewalk, then seems to notice something beyond the railing. He veers, leans to peer over the edge for a moment as he grasps the handrail, then turns and comes back the way he came. The hood of his windbreaker usually covers his head, but not always. In some versions he grasps the railing with more urgency, with one hand or with both. This is a portrait of postmodern epiphany - not a blinding flash, but a tug on the senses or the mind that suggests a different way to go, repeated again and again in different keys. It could also be the opposite - the pull of habit punctuating and ordering daily experience with repetition and compulsion, wearing away the ability to recognize or initiate change.Ê
Carnegie curator Douglas Fogle has assembled works that span more than three decades, united only by their common commitment to the general idea that aesthetic truth is not so much a matter of grand gestures, but of mild surmise that gradually increases in impact, like a crack in the ice. This past year's International was the 55th since the show's beginnings more than 100 years ago and, like its recent predecessors, it presents a continuum of works and personalities that have helped shape philosophical and formal concerns that continue to feel very current. Italian artist Marisa Merz's extraordinary 1966 "Untitled (Living Sculpture)," made of aluminum strips, hangs threateningly overhead like a chandelier made by mating an octopus with a robot - a very different, animistic take on late-modern forms and materials compared to the unwrinkled, firmly non-biomorphic formalism of her American contemporaries. The presence of some 1970s-era gesso and paint on newspaper studies and small bronze works by Paul Thek (1933-1988), the legendary Brooklyn-born outsider-insider painter/proto-installation artist (Susan Sontag dedicated her seminal 1963 essay "Against Interpretation" to Thek) invokes whole dimensions of art history and the constant, complex crosscurrents of influence. Marginalia congeal and become central texts, while the canon of earlier priorities breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, further and further away in time.
A show like Life on Mars can have no center, not unlike the universe itself; every individual art event is equal to every other, defined by its own scale, immersed in its own dimension. Nevertheless, several bodies of work stand out as epitomes of contemporary process, walking a desire line that has especially strong persuasive powers. Awarded the $10,000 Carnegie Prize, New York-based, Latvian-born artist Vija Celmins' small, exquisitely pristine "Night Sky" paintings on canvas feel their way to the stars through her materials as if each pinpoint of light was imprinted on the artist's retina, or perhaps on her fingertips, then translated faithfully by the steady chant of long attention. A tenuous sense of touch emanates from her surfaces, like a veil of light breathing - just enough to whisper "human" to some neural translator deep in the brain. Celmins' stars have appeared on her surfaces as they appear at dusk, revealed as the careful shadows of labor polish away the glare of beginnings. Celmins was born in 1938 in Riga and has been active on the international art scene since the mid 1960s. In the context of Life on Mars, her paintings embody the calm certitude that our smallest actions pluck the strings of instruments beyond imagining.
Downstairs in a narrow corridor, L.A.-based graffiti/installation artist Barry McGee crashes back to earth with an almost audible visual twang, in works that double back on themselves like records reversing direction under a DJ's hand. Active in the San Francisco Bay area since the 1980s, McGee (tag name: "Twist") piles graffiti and other found imagery up the high museum walls. Some of it is framed, cobbled together in a futile effort to bring the excesses of consumer culture under control, some is unframed; other parts are made from surfacing materials like vinyl floor tiles, bulging out in five-foot-wide patches as if on the verge of bursting. Forces beyond the wall with its skin of gesture and color, and the quality of moments experienced just before the dam bursts, interest McGee more than the imagery itself.
In Thomas Hirschhorn's 2002 "Cavemanman" [sic], the dam is already long gone. A vision of the makeshift heart and essential homelessness at the core of our civilization, it consists of caverns of cardboard and duct tape, tin foil and philosophical texts, through which visitors duck and cover, getting in touch with their inner refugee. Like a coronary-bypass procedure conducted by a barefoot prophet in the bowels of a metropolitan dump, Hirschhorn's work examines the damage and blockage of contemporary energies, stripping veins from the arms and legs of philosophy and taping them to the walls in desperate acts of homemade bypass surgery. Among the most influential of contemporary artists, Hirschhorn's widely imitated installations have helped to shove an aesthetic of outsider-like, manically ramshackle construction into the mainstream of current international installation art. His is a futuristic world envisioned not in terms of alternate paths, but as a place where all roads are escape routes, tunneling beneath an unseen but keenly intuited conflagration. Caught between the cold breath of Celmins' eternity and Hirschhorn's secret-filled, roach-hotel-like present, the embattled human spirit is pressed thin, like a movie alien, already unrecognizable under our own skin.
Life on Mars: 55th Carnegie International May 3, 2008- January 11, 2009 Carnegie Museum of Art 4400 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh 412.622.3131 cmoa.org