The Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection is vast. But one of the more obscure facets of that archive has been turned into one of the more popular attractions at the 57th Carnegie International.
“Fruit and Other Things” is a uniquely interactive exhibit by Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin, Pittsburgh-based artists who find new ways to explore the everyday. Invited to contribute to the museum’s huge, roughly quadrennial showcase for artists from around the world, they focused on lists the museum kept of the titles of artworks – all paintings – rejected in the first several Internationals, between 1896 and 1931.
The titles numbered more than 10,600 in all, but aside from the artists’ names, that was all that survived of them, from “A Bavarian Peasant” and “Jesus Comforts the Afflicted” to “Wine, Women and Wrong” and endless iterations of “Landscape,” “Still Life” and “Portrait.”
Ingeniously, “Fruit and Other Things” brings the titles back to life in a multi-faceted way.
The exhibit inhabits the museum’s Forum Gallery, located right off the lobby. The first thing a visitor notices is two artists seated at easels facing each other. With help from an overhead projector, each is using a brush and India ink to trace, in alphabetical order and one at the time, the 10,632 titles in black, on stark white paper. (Font: Caslon.)
The completed ledger-sized paintings are then mounted in holders circling the gallery’s four walls. (One day in late November: “Hunter’s Choice,” “Huntress Restraining the Hounds,” “Huron’s Campground,” “Hush, Low,” etc.) Visitors are invited to take one home with them for free, making them owners of certified Carnegie International artworks.
The exhibit’s title, “Fruit and Other Things” – taken from one of the artworks – is a wry commentary, says Clayton. “For us it perfectly describes the project in that it’s incredibly specific and absurdly general in one title.”
Dozens of visitors take home a painting each day, and thousands since the International opened, in October. The 15 in-gallery artists (including Clayton and Rubin) work in shifts; it takes 10 minutes on average to complete a painting, and the artists (who are paid for their work) are pacing themselves so the titles last the whole show, which closes March 25.
“The fact that you could walk in and take a piece home with you is like a kind of tiny little miracle that converts someone’s passive viewing experience into this active, almost shopping mentality,” says Rubin, an art professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Like Clayton, he’s an internationally exhibited artist. Rubin says patrons have stood in line for an hour or more for a chance to take a painting home.
Visually, the effect of all these words on paper is at once simple, on the surface, and ironic – as if the words were suggestions of what to actually paint, or placeholders for presumably beautiful images arriving any minute. Some visitors might even recall Rene Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe with text reading “This is Not a Pipe.”
Rubin notes that “Fruit and Other Things” also honors the rejection suffered at some point by every artist, and – in the visible labor of the in-gallery artists – the sheer manual work that so much art requires.
But the words themselves inspire, too. One weekday in late November, visitors included Harrison Lee, a Carnegie Mellon University sophomore.
“I got the ‘Humility’ one, which I think is a good thing to have in your house,” says Lee, who was visiting with his anthropology class. Lee liked the exhibit’s general premise, too. “It’s really interesting how they’re like recycling the rejected ideas to make it into an entirely new project.”
“I like to think that the paintings pick the people,” says Rubin. That was certainly true for Geneva Martin, who splits time between Pittsburgh and a home in Ohio but had visited the International several times already.
“I was waiting for something that would resonate with me,” she said. “One day, it was all just ‘Fishers,’ ‘Fishers,’ ‘Fishers.” Then she saw “Going to Prayer Meeting.”
“When I was a child, we would go to prayer meeting and I never really liked it,” she said. “And interestingly, the piece that I got was smudged. So on the ‘G,’ there was this big black smudge, it was like somebody dragging their feet, and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is for me, this tells my story.’
The in-gallery artists who spend hours a day painstakingly tracing the titles say they enjoy the process.
“Oh, I love it. It’s very meditative,” said Katie Gablick, while working on the title “Idle Moments.” “It’s very exciting to see how excited people get when they finally get their painting.”
The project “honors past artists,” said Linda Plowman, who was tracing “Idle Quarry.” “It’s great to honor them through lettering and titles that mean something to people.”
Separately and together, Clayton and Rubin in their work often rearrange familiar elements in public spaces to get viewers to reconsider the whole.
Rubin’s best-known projects include Conflict Kitchen, a food stall that served dishes from countries the U.S. is in conflict with (its most recent iteration, in Oakland’s Schenley Plaza, closed in 2017.) He also created The Last Billboard, which ran provocative messages on a rooftop in East Liberty.
Clayton’s work often interrogates domesticity and motherhood. She’s exhibited a shirt that she decorated with marks from a manual typewriter, and a display of dozens of objects that she removed from the mouth of her infant son.
In 2017, Clayton and Rubin collaborated for New York’s Guggenheim Museum on a project titled: “A talking parrot, a high school drama class, a punjabi TV show, the oldest song in the world, a museum artwork, and a congregation's call to action circle through New York.” They got six businesses and other institutions on an imaginary circle drawn through New York City to swap objects important to them.
“We were just trying to look at how culture is made throughout the city, and all these sort of different socioeconomic conditions, and put them into direct conversation with each other,” says Rubin.
Another component of “Fruit and Other Things” is that Clayton and Rubin ask patrons to photograph themselves at home with their new art and post the image on the exhibit’s website.
“In some ways what's interesting is it creates an inversion of this archive that we found here in the museum, you know stuck in a file cabinet,” he says. “And now there is a new visual archive which is completely visible and public of, you know, the works in people's lives.”
“Fruit and Other Things,” in other words, gives the ghosts of thousands of rejected paintings – their titles – new life as accepted artworks.
“So it's kind of the exhibition is this moment that looks both backwards and then creates a new future,” says Rubin.
WESA receives funding from the Carnegie Museum of Art.