News Column

Art Review: Three solo exhibits at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

July 3, 2014

By Kurt Shaw, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

July 03--Three solo exhibits at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts command attention above and beyond the "2014 Artist of the Year" and "2014 Emerging Artist of the Year" exhibits on display there.

The first and foremost that visitors will come to is Jake Beckman's "Small Pieces Tied to Something Bigger."

A native of Cleveland, Beckman lives in Philadelphia where he teaches art and design at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Having a lifelong interest in biology, chemistry and other physical sciences, Beckman displays several pieces he created that explore abstract concepts through the use of basic materials, such as wood, fabric, rope and sand.

The biggest of these is "No More," which takes up the center of the gallery.

Looking like a miniature version of a tarp-covered slag heap, complete with tires that look as if they're holding down the tarp, Beckman says of it, "I've carried the piece 'No More' around with me for quite some time.

"In Cleveland, where I spent much of my time growing up, vast quantities of raw materials were constantly being off-loaded from freighter ships on the Cuyahoga River for use in steel-making or other industries," Beckman says. "Whole mountains of iron ore or limestone gravel seemed to materialize from the bowels of these ships, forming a landscape that ebbed and flowed depending, I imagined, on the state and health of the industrial economy. The image of these mounded accumulations of prosperity was contrasted in my mind with the shuttered, yet still formidable, infrastructure that also speckled the architectural landscape in Cleveland."

Thus, for Beckman, this oddly shaped pile, playful in its relationship to scale, is sad and mournful like a strange funerary mound veiled in synthetic fabric.

"As the increase of foreign imports and the growth of the low-wage service industry in the U.S. demonstrates, we are already disconnected from the means of production for many, many things that we consume," he says. "And while human labor still serves as the foundation for the global economy in many sectors, especially in the developing world, it seems inevitable that even human-intensive labors, like mining, will someday be automated."

Jennie Thwing's "My Black Hole," a film installation, was originally supposed to be a forever-changing room.

"I wanted it to show the different people you become in different situations and at different times in your life," says Thwing, an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College in Long Island, N.Y.

And though her original concept was to create a room that would morph from one reality into another, she says that when she started to film it, she realized that she was recording herself creating art. So, she says, "I decided to turn the project into metaphors for the ways we feel when we are creating things."

Filmed in stop-motion, the artist appears as if framed within her own artwork, as the imagery moves from one vignette to another.

"Sometimes creating new work is hard and doesn't work, sometimes you make magic, sometimes you are waiting for something to happen, and sometimes you work so much you get lost," she says.

Thwing says she likes working with stop-motion because it requires a lot of experimentation, which leads to new work. "I tried countless types of reflective fabrics before I discovered that sequined fabric and a strong light source make the best water," she says in reference to one scene where she appears to be swimming in a tidal wave.

A soundtrack of prerecorded natural sounds creates a complementary backdrop to the imagery.

"Sound is key in creating a mood," Thwing says. "I probably spend as much time designing the sound as I do filming and editing. I am a big fan of using natural sounds, although I will often put unrelated sounds into the scenes."

Then there's Jeanne Jaffe's installation "Betwixt and Between -- Liminal Objects." Jaffe is a professor of interdisciplinary fine arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has a background in archaeology and psychology.

That goes a long way in explaining why her installation, in her words, "attempts to reactivate pre-verbal memories in the viewer and reconnect the viewer to sensations which may have been buried, dismissed or neglected by consciousness.

"Memory is embedded in the body and nervous system, beyond language, logic and rational thought," Jaffe says. "They become stored as images, sensations and condensed accretions of multiple moments, fusion of internal sensations and impressions of the world outside of ourselves, fusions of multiple sources, of both animate and inanimate beings."

That's a fitting statement, but it likely won't stop even the most casual viewer from feeling like they are stepping into a surrealist painting upon entering this gallery.

Here, anthropomorphic sculptures resemble re-assigned body parts that fill the gallery with allegorical references to real-world concepts and the intellectual ruminations of the artist.

For example, in one corner, blue drop-shaped orbs that hang from the ceiling represent a "combination of tears and rain." Next to them hangs a fragment of a body stripped of everything except its core, and feet that look fossilized and cast in concrete. Jaffe describes all of it as "hanging fragments of memories that remain after all the unimportant events are forgotten."

Then there are two larger biomorphic pieces on the floor that look like larger-than-life scientific models of hair follicles and molecules, which Jaffe calls "Progeny" and "Doubling."

" 'Progeny' is in the front and deals with never knowing what becomes of that which you generate," she says. "We reproduce ourselves in ways that are unpredictable and mutated from its original intention."

"Doubling," which has a long shock of hair billowing from each side like pony tails, is about the myth of Narcissis. "If one looks down into the metal reflected surface of the base, one sees a distorted image of the double piece above, like a mirrored reflection in water," she says.

With their slick surfaces and subtle color gradations, the sculptural elements in this installation are beautifully crafted, making it one of the more sensual-looking exhibits to be seen at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in a long while.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at


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