The Carnegie International Puts Joy before Politics

Alina Cohen
Oct 18, 2018 3:25PM

Alex Da Corte, Rubber Pencil Devil, 2018, 57th Carnegie International. Photo by Tom Little. Courtesy of the artist and Karma New York.

It may not be a household name, but the Carnegie International, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the second-oldest exhibition of contemporary art in the world, after the Venice Biennale. Initiated in 1896, the event aimed, in the words of Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA) founder Andrew Carnegie, to “bring the world” to Pittsburgh—a city whose art-world bonafides are perhaps slim, beyond being the birthplace of Andy Warhol. The show is flexible, taking place every three to five years, depending on how much time each curator wants to research and commission new work. The 2018 edition (the 57th) attracted an international group of contributing artists including Alex Da Corte, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Kerry James Marshall, who milled about the galleries this past weekend.

I asked Marshall if he was looking forward to doing anything else in the city while he was there. “The Carnegie is the thing,” he said, when I caught him near his contribution to the show: newly conceived, black-and-white comic strips printed on plexiglass, hung in one 70-foot-long line throughout the lobby of the CMoA. Offering disjointed narratives that revolve around a superhero called Rythm Mastr, they provide a conceptual, Afrocentric alternative to, say, Superman. Some strips are meant to be read right to left; text appears backwards when issued from the mouth of a character facing away from the viewer. The strategy suggests that these works aren’t necessarily for you, but for another, fictional audience. Marshall first exhibited comics at the institution’s 1999–2000 Carnegie International exhibition. “There was a necessity for comic representation of black figures,” he told me, because you didn’t see them in daily newspapers. Nearly 20 years later, he was back to debut his latest installment.

Marshall’s work is but one part of a large, yet concise exhibition. Organized by curator and Pittsburgh native Ingrid Schaffner, the show includes work from over 30 artists, situated inside the museum and along its grounds. This reviewer, used to being herded around via bus or on foot to see biennial-style exhibitions spread across entire cities, was quite content to spend the entire day at one institution. I could focus on the art instead of my blisters, body temperature, and next meal. To be fair, the guidebook that accompanies the exhibition in lieu of detailed wall text warns visitors that “art galleries are maintained at a chill 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit with 45 to 55 percent humidity….A sweater is advised.” Schaffner’s attention to detail and emphasis on visitors’ enjoyment can make her seem like a benevolent babysitter, or just make other curators look like sadists.

Installation view of Ulrike Müller, Wraps and Rugs(con zapatos), 2018, 57th Carnegie International. Photo by Bryan Conley. Courtesy of the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York.


In fact, the Carnegie International provides a decidedly comfortable experience overall. Given the apocalyptic tenor of today’s news (Migrant mothers are still separated from their children! The Supreme Court is bust! Global warming will kill us all by 2040!), the show is surprisingly lighthearted. Schaffner organized an exhibition more focused on inspiring pleasure than on addressing any particular crisis; “Museum joy!” proclaims the accompanying tote bags. (If you want simple and immediate moral outrage while visiting the show, you could always check your phone notifications.)

Throughout, Schaffner embraced the decorative. After mounting a set of stairs off the lobby, flanked by a bright and blocky Sol LeWitt wall drawing (part of the permanent collection), viewers enter a gallery with boldly patterned rugs (featuring depictions of high-heeled shoes) by Ulrike Müller and “paintings” (some comprised of painted tiles, others of dyed, stitched canvases) by Sarah Crowner. The works create a stylish, colorful portal into the rest of the exhibition. Across from the LeWitt, they offer an early example of Schaffner’s attempt to connect the new Carnegie International works and commissions with the museum’s architecture, permanent collections, and installations. (The most significant link between old and new, perhaps, is El Anatsui’s massive intervention: aluminum panels that coat the CMoA’s façade.)

From this chic gallery, visitors enter a room filled with Yiadom-Boakye’s suite of imagined portraits. Fantasy and fashion prevail again. The artist paints fictional (predominantly black) figures, often at large scale. One picture, A Whistle in a Wish (2018)—of a woman in a black dress with a blue collar, smoking a cigarette propped between long, elegant fingers—radiates an effortless cool. Nearby, Coronet (2018) depicts three men lounging together above a black-and-white checkered floor. Sporting vivid hues—a purple shirt, a green scarf—the men strike casual, languid poses.

Clothing reappears with a more politicized slant in Beverly Semmes’s Feminist Responsibility Project, for which the artist alters pages from pornographic publications and digitally prints them onto dresses, pants, and tops. Ultimately, Semmes appropriates objectifying images for her own aesthetic (and commercial) ends. The Carnegie International hangs a video from one of her fashion shows, featuring these designs, on a wall decorated with chartreuse tulle.

Installation view of Sarah Crowner, Wall (Wavy Arrow Terracotta), 2018, 57th Carnegie International. Photo by Bryan Conley. Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York.

The Carnegie International remains, for the most part, cheery. Even war becomes palettable under the auspices of Jeremy Deller and Karen Kilimnik. The former created tiny television screens, which play battle reenactments. They’re installed within small-scale tableau that is part of the CMoA’s permanent collection: miniature rooms by midcentury Pittsburgh artist Ruth McChesney that feature dollhouse-sized model parlors filled with nostalgic markers of wealth and comfort (candelabra, floral rug, grandfather clock, rotary phone). Inside these tiny structures, Deller’s looping films show redcoats marching, firing muskets, and building fires. In the context of our contemporary fears and anxieties—threats of nuclear violence, automatic rifles, terrorist attacks—it’s nearly funny.

Kilimnik, meanwhile, is known for gentle gestures: placing stickers of cats and sparkling fish atop photographs, and painting lovely little oil paintings. Such works are on view inside the museum’s decorative arts gallery (a perfect location), across from vitrines filled with “objects of luxury” from the permanent collection: a snuff box, potpourri vase, and lots of porcelain. Kilimnik’s other contribution to the Carnegie International is a new film, The World at War, which juxtaposes war scenes from various feature films. The whole project is more whimsical than frightening.

On the other hand, Kilimnik and Deller’s work highlights the frivolity of the museum collection itself. Contemporary art, when paired with dollhouse-sized magazines and elegant tea cups, makes the latter seem shockingly out of touch. Maybe it’s the entire project of collecting and fetishizing objects—and not necessarily the work of Kilimnik or Deller—that needs a rethink.

In Schaffner’s exhibition, even trash becomes cute. Yuji Agematsu has filled 365 cellophane cigarette carton wrappers with detritus he finds on New York City streets. One selection features a torn Heinz tomato ketchup packet (a micro nod to Pittsburgh, perhaps) amid a web of spidery black thread; another contains a miniature Colgate toothbrush poking out of chewed gum and colorful candy wrappers.

Installation view of Postcommodity, From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home, 2018, 57th Carnegie International. Photo by Bryan Conley. Courtesy of Postcommodity.

Even when certain commissions engage with difficult topics, the aesthetic component is still pleasant, even beautiful. A work by Postcommodity—an indigenous collective whose website states their radical mission to push back against “the colonizing force that is defining the 21st Century”—literally glistens. Positioned along the floor in the museum’s hall of sculpture—beneath a two-story ceiling and a mezzanine filled with marble nudes and toga-clad figures—Postcommodity’s installation From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home (2018) comprises shiny coal chunks and shimmering white glass shards. On top rests rusted steel ladders, rotors, grates, and more detritus from Carrie Furnace—one of the final iron producers to close in Pittsburgh.

According to Postcommodity’s Cristóbal Martínez, Pittsburgh’s steel production helped create the first black labor unions within the industry, which in turn helped lead to the development of jazz music. As an indigenous collective, Martínez said, he and his collaborators were able to “use the very materials that are implicated in having financed a fantasy” like the CMoA (Carnegie, of course, made his money in the steel industry), and offer “an indigenous worldview about how these types of spaces are implicated in colonization.” The contrast of steel refuse strewn across the floor amongst marble sculptures serves as the Carnegie International’s most poignant conjunction of the museum’s own site with newly commissioned artwork. Just beyond From Smoke, along the museum’s grand staircase, the CMoA’s long-standing murals of day laborers and railroads offer yet another connection to the city’s industrial history, one that celebrates that past in a more heroic, myth-making way.

At the back of the Scaife Galleries, Cameroonian curator Koyo Kouoh organized a miniature show-within-the-show, entitled “Dig Where You Stand.” It culls together objects from the CMoA collection: a stuffed bald eagle; a Cecil Beaton photograph of Queen Elizabeth; a Mickalene Thomas photograph that riffs on Édouard Manet; a Nam June Paik sculpture, TV Rodin (1976–78) that places a miniature of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker in front of a television. A massive, vivid lime-and-magenta Warhol silkscreen of Andrew Carnegie looms large atop a burnt-orange wall. Historical layers of art, colonization, and patronage multiply throughout the small gallery. The exhibition, said Kouoh’s graduate student assistant Emi Finkelstein, aims to think about “how to critique the institution from inside the institution.”

In the museum’s Heinz Galleries, American artist Joan Jonas and Vietnamese collective Art Labor offer more subtle, aromatic recriminations. Their installation features a coffee cart (which functions as a café, serving drinks for two hours every day made from Vietnamese beans—nodding to the country’s significant but often overlooked coffee production). Three hammocks allow visitors to relax and gaze overhead, where a series of mostly green, floral-shaped kites dangle from the ceiling. Collective member Truong Cong Tung’s father made the forms and shipped them to Jonas, who painted and decorated them. “It’s a dying craft,” Jonas said about kite-making—her work is an act of preservation. Nearby, Art Labor placed bulbous sculptures of corrugated iron and wood, coated with coffee grinds. Collective member Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran told me that American soldiers first brought corrugated iron to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This material that resonates with a decades-old conflict is embedded, and covered over, in the artwork.

Despite the occasional moment of biting critique, the Carnegie International often serves as a respite from bad news. An installation by Da Corte serves as its greatest moment of escapism: A neon structure that resembles a cottage with flower boxes and jack-o’-lanterns in the windows invites visitors inside, where they can watch candy-colored films of Da Corte dressed like Pinocchio and Mr. Rogers, blowing a balloon or singing in the rain.

In another room, Jessi Reaves’s luxe, tongue-shaped couch offers another stylish place to rest—and gaze at her mixed-media, furniture sculptures (some are indeed working lamps), which scream “I just dumpster-dove in the world’s hippest trash bin.” Pieces appear to be made out of deconstructed fabrics and furniture, with threads and wires hanging loose and seams ever present.

I love the work of Da Corte and Reaves, and I definitely love sitting down in museums. For better or for worse, I felt a little decadent for enjoying myself so much while a front-page investigation unfolded surrounding the murder of a Saudi journalist. A clear dissonance prevailed between the day’s crises and the artwork at the Carnegie International. But ultimately (call me irresponsible!), I wasn’t so upset to forget the world, within the confines of a museum, for a few hours.

Installation view of Koyo Kouoh, Dig Where You Stand, 2018, 57th Carnegie International. Photo by Bryan Conley. Courtesy of Koyo Kou.

It’s not, admittedly, all light and whimsy. Consider Huma Bhabha’s giant Styrofoam and gouged cork sculpture, which resembles an undead spirit protruding from a set of wooden boards. I asked Bhabha if it was a man or a monster. “It’s transforming,” she told me, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Mike Kelley screenprint of a skull. “I prefer to leave it open-ended so that you can imagine whether the skin is stripped off, or whether it’s an addition.”

Exiting the Carnegie International, visitors can grab a party favor: text paintings created in situ by Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin (and a host of collaborators), which feature the titles of the 10,632 paintings previously rejected by the Carnegie International from 1896 through 1931, when the show issued an open call for entrants. In any museum, said Clayton, “there’s so much that you don’t see. Voices that are not heard for different reasons. We think of it like an iceberg….There’s this whole wealth of unseen work.” Visitors can leave the institution carrying pieces of its history—titled, perhaps, “A Frosty Fog” or “A Noisy Argument.”

The Carnegie International, as I’ve mentioned, is conveniently self-contained. But at least one one participant wanted to journey further afield to explore what else Pittsburgh has to offer. Chicago gallerist John Corbett was in town with gallery partner Jim Dempsey and artist Josiah McElheny. The three have organized a miniature exhibition within Carnegie International that offers an alternative history of music: Artifacts include ephemera by Sun Ra and an experimental film by Maya Deren. Corbett told me that he was simply looking forward to driving around the hilly, verdant city, which boasts an impressive 446 bridges. In Pittsburgh, one can also see permanent Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell installations at the eclectic Mattress Factory; visit Warhol’s personal collection of artifacts at the Andy Warhol Museum; and eat french fries on a Primanti’s sandwich (ask your cab drivers for their meat preferences—strong opinions abound).

As Pittsburgh native Gertrude Stein (whose 1925 novel The Making of Americans was repurposed for a Carnegie International project by The Otolith Group) once said about coffee: “It’s something happening…a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.” At the Carnegie International, one can literally have a cup courtesy of Joan Jonas and Art Labor. But Schaffner’s show offers a similarly restful opportunity, nearly outside of time, to simply look and be.

Alina Cohen
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019