The 57th Carnegie International ends March 25, so it’s time for a last look at the sprawling exhibit featuring cutting-edge work by 32 artists from around the world.
Three local arts leaders responded to a request to discuss one of their favorite works in the show.
Thirteen oil paintings by British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, collectively titled “A Light for the Louder Graces,” won the International’s prestigious Carnegie Prize. They also impressed Thomas Agnew, a graphic designer who co-owns art collective BOOM Concepts.
“A lot of her pieces, you get a sense that you’ve been here before, that you’ve seen these scenes before,” said Agnew. “They’re really relatable.”
Yiadom-Boakye’s is of Ghanaian descent, and her 13 portraits all depict black people. The figures in the paintings are all life-sized, or even larger. In “No Need of Speech,” two young men in a crouch regard each other deeply.
“It seems like they share a relationship of some kind, whether they’re friends, family collaborators,” said Agnew. “They have like you can see an expression on their face that shows a real cool emotion, like a look of understanding.”
The paintings are a bit enigmatic: In many, the settings give little clue to the characters, most of whose clothes seem modern but featureless, like singlets or black leggings. Viewers of works like “No Need of Speech” can provide their own narratives.
“They may be resting as part of a performance before they go on the next piece. Or they could be practicing,” said Agnew. “The way that Lynette creates these pieces leaves the imagination of what is happening in these places.”
Another painting, of a seated man in a brightly colored shirt seemingly in animated conversation with someone outside the frame, reminded Agnew of his own family’s gatherings. “She could have grabbed a picture from my family’s picture book or something! That looks very close to home. So I appreciate the way she depicts the black people in a lot of her work.”
Artist and cultural producer Casey Droege was especially drawn to “Breaking News (For Peter Watkins),” by British artist Jeremy Deller. Droege’s interest lay partly in her life-long attachment to the work’s setting: the museum’s Hall of Miniatures, a dimly lit, low-ceilinged and walnut-paneled chamber between the much larger Hall of Architecture and Hall of Sculpture. For 50 years, the museum has displayed a series of glassed-in, doll-house-like recreations of rooms in homes owned by philanthropist Sarah Mellon Scaife.
“I grew up in Pittsburgh and I came to the miniature rooms all the time as a kid,” says Droege. “And I really, really loved them, as most kids love anything miniature and tiny. It was really exciting!”
Deller has placed in the three of the rooms tiny video monitors like TVs, each screening historical re-enactments of what appear to be 18th-century battles. (The miniatures depict 20th-century rooms mimicking furnishings dating to the 17th century.)
“The rooms are like really romanticizing this era,” says Droege, “and the TVs are a nice little intervention that starts to look at how we take in news today, and the sort of the fact that we have this 24-hour news cycle, and it’s just constant images of our political landscape and our social landscape.”
Droege notes that “Breaking News” is a reprise of a work that first appeared at the museum for the 2004 Carnegie International, when it commented on the then-recent U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“So I think it’s just like a nice juxtaposition to look at this tiny little piece, and then zoom out and look at context of how we see these contemporary artworks in the middle of this political landscape, the current state of what our culture is looking like.”
Elsewhere at the International, Senegalese curator Koyo Kouoh has filled a gallery with carefully chosen artworks and artifacts from the Carnegie Museums of art and natural history. The idea of this exhibition-within-an-exhibition titled “Dig Where You Stand” is to explore colonialism, industry, global trade, and art itself.
janera solomon, executive director of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, in East Liberty, saw one facet of the exhibit reflected in a single juxtaposition of two objects: a huge, iconic painting of Andrew Carnegie by Andy Warhol and, nearby under glass, the taxidermied body of a bald eagle killed at the Battle of Gettysburg.
“This bald eagle across from the portrait of Andrew Carnegie, the Warhol portrait, it just raises some questions about who gets to tell stories and which stories are told, which stories are valuable and which stories aren’t,” said solomon, who is also a mayoral appointee to the Carnegie Museum’s board of trustees.
“Dig Where You Stand” ranges around the globe and across centuries. A 1950s photo of Queen Elizabeth hangs near a relief of Egyptian royalty, a glass case containing a multi-chambered antique “tea machine,” and historical sculptures from Africa. On the opposite wall hangs one of American artist Kara Walker’s contemporary paper-cut-out works exploring the legacy of slavery.
A few steps away from that, solomon stopped to admire a large photograph by artist Mikalene Thomas, depicting three black women in sundresses in poses intentionally recalling “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” a famous painting by Manet.
“I love the colors, I love the concept of these three women, the references to paintings of before, but again, it’s kind of this connectivity between race, and contemporaneity, and what it means for ideas to be exchanged, and culture to be exchanged,” says solomon. “It’s really, it’s powerful, it’s beautiful.”
Other works in “Dig Where You Stand” include a collection of photographs by famed photographer Teenie Harris documenting a 1950s expo marketing products for the home to African-Americans.
“Dig Where You Stand” asks visitors to make a lot of connections between seemingly unrelated objects; a large graphic on the wall connects the names of the artists with a dizzying web of dashed, dotted, and solid lines, reflecting the exhibit’s stated, academic-sounding themes of “Coloniality + Agency,” “Mobility + Exchange” and “Speculative Temporalities.”
But solomon says the exhibit’s basic purpose is simple.
“The point of ‘Dig Where You Stand’ is that literally and figuratively, we’re standing on the backs of culture, of people, I mean our ancestors,” she said. “There’s history, there’s history before us, and the more we dig, in quotes, and understand what’s before us, the more we’ll understand ourselves.”
The Carnegie Museums provide funding to WESA.