Kid ‘n’ Play

Left: Sharon Needles. (Photo: Sam Wilson) Right: Carnegie International curators Dan Byers, Tina Kukielski, and Daniel Baumann. (Photo: Renee Rosensteel)

EAGERLY ANTICIPATED, the 2013 Carnegie International is a down-to-earth, homegrown affair. Without a title, a theme, or any kind of tagline, it’s a special show that doesn’t put on any special airs, which is no small feat given the International’s status as the oldest, grandest, most august exhibition of contemporary art in the US. (For contrast, dial back to the 2008 edition “Life on Mars,” which pondered, Do aliens exist?) The 2013 CI curators—Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers, and Tina Kukielski—are likewise unafraid to speak candidly about their project: “We love art because it is a troublemaker that changes our thinking and even our lives,” they say in the show’s accompanying catalogue, with just a touch of Yogi Tea bag wisdom.

During a press conference in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s theater last Friday that kicked off the opening weekend festivities, the three laid out some general framework for their sprawling show. After opening remarks by the museum’s director Lynn Zelevansky—who noted that she had charged her team with thinking about how Pittsburgh could compete with Istanbul and Gwangju, as well as challenge the increasing homogenization one sees at large-scale international exhibitions—the curators glossed over some of their broad, shared positions. Baumann: “We aimed to figure out the show’s place and function in Pittsburgh, to know the texture of the city.” Kukielski: “We’re interested in artists reading histories against the grain.” Byers: “We wanted to think about the museum as a playground, as liberating.”

A few moments later, at the top of the museum’s Grand Staircase, Byers again: “And we thought we should begin with a crotch shot.” Turns out there are many in Mark Leckey’s 2012 video Pearl Vision—a self-portrait of sorts, though you never see his face, just a chrome snare between his legs.

Mark Leckey, Pearl Vision, 2012.

The curators are conscious of making a lasting impact on the community, and the show is mostly G-rated—for example, it delivers in full on the playgrounds. Plopped right outside the museum is the Lozziwurm, a vibrant specimen designed by Ivan Pestalozzi, where I spotted many a baby at play, as well as a show-within-a-show titled “The Playground Project.” Tucked into the upstairs Heinz Architectural Center, this undertaking gathers fascinating documentation and research on playground history, including Isamu Noguchi’s 1933 Play Mountain; art by kids (such as work made with participating CI artists Ei Arakawa and Henning Bohl during a summer camp); and a spirited installation by Tezuka Architects where you can take a balloon home with you. In the main galleries, we found Tobias Madison’s footage of kids playing in Workshop, which he made with a local after-school group. He’d told them to “neglect any authority in the museum,” he later related, “to experience a disconnect from logic.” And to have fun in the museum, basically, with the underlying hope that perhaps adults will too.

Inside the hushed second-floor galleries, I navigated the complex installation with Kukielski, taking note of the dialogue established early on among works by Sadie Benning, Zanele Muholi, and Vincent Fecteau, who was also touring the galleries with Matthew Marks’s Adrian Rosenfeld. Fecteau’s installation of eleven sculptures is, in essence, a minisurvey of his stunning, energetic work from the past seven years. While Kukielski mentioned that the curators had worked closely with him on the install (some of the wall-mounted works are reversible), Fecteau chimed in with a smile: “I never try to be difficult.”

Left: Artist Gabriel Sierra with dealers Jose Kuri and Gavin Brown and Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf. (Photo: Renee Rosensteel) Right: Bobby Jesus and Frances Stark. (Photo: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)

Downstairs in a former coatroom, Wade Guyton had stripped the space down to its concrete floor and installed several of his paneled paintings and a few sofas, perhaps to round out the studio-like feel. It’s “the room for the 99 percent,” according to Baumann, while in the stately Founders Room—built for Andrew Carnegie to welcome guests (the room for the 1 percent?)—Guyton installed paintings made from large-scale scans of flames. Like much of the rest of the show, the installation here points to the museum’s history, its civic use, and the International’s mandate to be both local and global. But it also touches on economic issues in the US, however obliquely. Also on the first floor (and serving as a foil to Guyton’s rooms, perhaps) is Zoe Strauss’s direct condemnation of economic inequality in her photo-based project about Homestead, Pennsylvania, a former steel town.

After a quick catnap, I headed back to the museum at 6 PM with a crowd dressed for the “creative cocktail/black tie” VIP reception and gala premiere. Speeches were made from a small balcony in the baroque music hall: Thanks were given to the gala patrons (for funding over $800,000), the women’s committee (for the decorations), as well as to Audi’s sponsorship (for the dealership car parked by the door). “It feels like worlds colliding in here,” said a friend as we took it all in: Dealers from Los Angeles, London, Mexico City, Tokyo, all in town to support their artists, were mixing with Pittsburgh’s upper crust, tinkling ice cubes in their glasses. Several more guests were still roaming the galleries, which were open until midnight—and it was a highlight to have a twilight stroll through Gabriel Sierra’s minimal intervention (purple-painted walls) in the Hall of Architecture. “He proposed purple as a bit of a dare to us,” Kukielski said, “but we all decided we loved the color, and in the end the exact shade took about four months for us to figure out.”

Left: Kids playing in work by Tezuka Architects. (Photo: Renee Rosensteel) Right: Artist Tobias Madison and Flavio Merlo. (Photo: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)

A buffet dinner was served a little after 7 in the Carriage Drive, while petite desserts were presented shortly after on trays in the ballroom—mini cupcakes, pies, and other sweets—washed down by most with wine from the open bar. Things got much more interesting by 10:30 when Sharon Needles, a Pittsburgher perhaps best known for her sulky avatar on the fourth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, arrived in the music hall via a closed coffin. Stepping out in her frayed sequin dress, Needles ambled to the balcony stage amid the gawkers, some clearly unsure about what was happening.

“I bet you all went to college!” she shrieked into the mic before kicking off an erratic set, including a Ministry cover, punctuated by more plucky commentary. (“Wow, there’s a lot of rich people in here tonight!”) Most of the artists shrugged to that, or laughed with each other. And later they hugged, took photos, and shared cigarettes with her outside the museum—near the Audi, naturally.

Left: Dealer Photios Giovanis with artist Sadie Benning and curator Lynne Cooke. Right: Artist Zanele Muholi (left) and Performa co-founder RoseLee Goldberg (center). (Photos: Renee Rosensteel)

Left: Daniel Baumann and Sharon Needles. (Photo: Lauren O'Neill-Butler) Right: Artist Zoe Strauss. (Photo: Renee Rosensteel)

Left: Dealer Leo Koenig with artists Nicole Eisenman, Leidy Churchman, Sam Miller, and dealer Margaret Liu Clinton. Right: Artist Phyllida Barlow and crew at work on TIP.

Left: Artists Frances Stark and Henry Taylor. Right: Tina Kukielski with artist Vincent Fecteau.