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Art Reviews: Works dream of beds where there is no sleep

 

Saturday, February 13, 1999

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Arts Writer

The use of the bed as something beyond a piece of furniture is not new in art. From the spiritually symbolic wedding bower of Jan van Eyck's 15th-century "Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride" to the skewed arrangement of Vincent Van Gogh's late 19th-century bedroom and Robert Rauschenberg's 1955 "combine painting" with actual quilt, artists have engaged a shorthand of associations to speak to the viewer.
 
The cruciform "Jilava Prison Bed for Father Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa" by artist Mel Chin is part of the exhibition "Embedded Metaphor," at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts through March 21. It was originally conceived for a 1982 Amnesty International exhibition that called attention to the plight of political prisoners.

Contemporary sculpture and photographs in a novel exhibition at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, "Embedded Metaphor," continue this pattern, drawing on the bed form to tease, warn, pontificate and memorialize.

Two excellent works share the gallery at stair top. Lauren Lesko's "Coifed" blends humor with more serious undertones and exudes ambivalent sensuality: There's confusion as to whether one wants to roll on it or pet it. It's no coincidence that comparisons may be made between curly clipped black poodle fur and the salon look that accompanies a woman of pedigree. Across the room, Rona Pondick's simple, abstract "Black Bed" is so oppressive that it stops breath. Slug-like black satin bags effectively connote degradation. A small bronze shape that is at once embryonic, phallic and fecal adds final weight.

Scale is used by several artists to make their points. Janet Biggs' stilted "Crib" within a ring of stuffed animals reminds that childhood is a place of fantasy, and one that is not always protected. The carefully crafted cast iron Lilliputian "Bed" by Ann Messner, with megaphone and military demeanor, is surreal and dream-like.

Mel Chin's wrenching "Jilava Prison Bed," designed to call attention to the plight of an imprisoned Romanian priest, is inherently powerful. But in this venue, where the empty bed is often surrogate for the experience of the implied body, a life-sized scale that immediately paired with the viewer's space would have better drawn him into a visceral relationship. It's reduced size allows an easier escape into an intellectual reading.

Some of the best works are photographic. Ton Zwerver's 1955 site-specific "Sculpture for the Moment" makes a successful transition to two dimensions and lives on as a color print. Lorie Novak's unsettling "Mirror Image" considers the influence of youthful experiences as does Dale Kistemaker's playful installation "His Bedroom," but her point-of-focus makes a more captivating statement.

Especially compelling is Perry Bard's photographic series of cardboard "Shelters" erected by the homeless in New York City. Their straightforward depiction says it all, a reality reinforced by his inclusion of the street address in the titles. Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose "cooking piece" was in the 1995 Carnegie International, is not as successful with the similarly themed "Untitled (Sleep/Winter)," which is too sanitized and coordinated to convey a nomadic space. Recognition relies heavily on the viewer's everyday familiarity with these structures and, while Bard's adjacent work may clue in some, this tussled pile in the corner as easily suggests a teen's overnight bedroll.

This is a touring exhibition and some of the early works have begun to show their age; however, the flip side is that the issues are still with us, so each speaks in some way. A thoughtful essay by the curator, and statements by the above and other artists in the exhibition, makes the well-illustrated catalog an informative supplement.

At 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside, through March 21. The Center is open Mon. through Sat., 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sun., noon to 5 p.m.


 

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