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Art Review: Associated Artists of Pittsburgh's 93rd Annual Exhibition

Leaner AAP exhibition still has great impact

Thursday, June 19, 2003

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

It's a tribute to the staying power of the nearly century-old Associated Artists of Pittsburgh that its 93rd Annual Exhibition will open tomorrow in the University Art Gallery of the University of Pittsburgh.

"Stacked and Folded" by Sally Gehl is among the works featured in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh's 93rd Annual Exhibition, opening tomorrow. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Associated Artists
of Pittsburgh
93rd Annual Exhibition

Where: University Art Gallery in the Frick Fine Arts Building, Schenley Drive, across from the Carnegie Library, Oakland.
When: Opening reception is from 4 to 7 p.m. tomorrow. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The exhibition runs through July 22.
Admission: Free; 412-648-2423.

Beset by financial tribulations over the past few years that resulted in the suspension of regular exhibitions and the closing of its Downtown office, the organization announced the sale of its Liberty Avenue building to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust earlier this month.

Because of renovations at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where the previous 90 annuals had been held, the 2002 show moved to The Andy Warhol Museum. This year, with the Carnegie's renovation continuing and the Warhol's galleries committed to the Summer of Andy in commemoration of the artist's 75th birthday, the annual was set adrift until another local institution -- the University of Pittsburgh -- stepped in to save the day.

The resultant exhibition is the smallest in recent years, both in number of works and their sizes, since the gallery's hanging methods and dimensions necessitated size and weight restrictions. Fifty-four works were selected from 296 submitted by 116 artists in comparison to last year's 93 works from 488 submitted by 175 artists.

While leaner, the show's not sparse. The overall look is more refined and, though not as juiced as The Warhol show nor as expansive as those at the Carnegie, it's a presentable exhibition with several very fine and some exceptional works.

And the venue is a plus for the smaller pieces, particularly art/craft works that have never looked finer than they do in the built-in gallery cases, such as Joan Iverson Goswell's excellent artist book, "Jabberwocky." Also encased are works by deceased members Louise Evans Scott and Joseph Eiser.

The selection made by jurors Laura Hoptman, Carnegie Museum of Art curator of contemporary art, and Elizabeth Thomas, assistant curator, reflects the organization's vitality, exemplified by Shawn Quinlan's cheeky and polished "What Would Jesus Drive."

The artist puts the haloed infant at the wheel of a John Deere tractor in the center of the fastidiously appliqued fiber work, all of found fabric, but leaves the question open by placing Jesus in other vehicles -- blue Chevy convertible, dump truck, yellow taxicab -- that spiral out from the central figure. A standout in last year's annual also, we can look forward to more of his irreverent and intelligent sociopolitical commentary to come.

Provocative in a different sense is "George Willard" by L'ox Formidable, a man seated on a plain wooden chair in a transient space indicated by a suitcase against the wall behind him. The light coming through a dirty window is filtered to yellow-gray, but torrid. Stripped to the waist, his realistically depicted face and upper torso pulse with steamy color and texture in contrast to the abstracted gray slacks his hand reaches into and the unmemorable room. He stares blankly off. Whether a scene of alienation reminiscent of Edward Hopper or a depiction of one of the last sexual taboos -- or, likely, both -- it's a compelling painting, very of our time, conceptually and formally vigorous.

A.M. Schnur’s “Winter Hood” is on display at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh’s 93rd Annual Exhibition. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Other works that probe a psychological dimension are Dorothy Forman's haunting painting, "Storm," of a tortured figure that's part Edvard Munch, part rag doll, on crumpled paper, and Katherine McLean's foreboding "Hither and Thither," which also shows the potential an exhibition of smaller-sized works holds.

The abstract patterns of Kenneth Beer's fine print suggests swirls of ocean foam or distant galaxies, but the title, "Aspergere," referring to the Catholic ritual of conferring blessings via a sprinkling of holy water, implies a spiritual reading.

In their statement, the jurors acknowledge the variety of work being made in "these pluralistic times" and therefore the absence of a predominant theme or approach. They also make note of the dearth of new media submissions -- video, digital works. However, photography has a notable presence, as with Teresa Dalla Piccola Wood's black-and-white photograph of instruments on the "World Trade Center Rooftop" that avoids the obvious and subtly suggests the fragmentation and isolation felt on Sept. 11, 2001.

The gloss, large size, rich color and in-your-face detail of Gill Larson's enigmatically titled "Grace Project" -- another photograph -- emphasize the lush, living quality of the underwater plants that appear to float behind aquarium glass. Aaronel de Roy Gruber, in contrast, makes a counterintuitive statement in "Banyan Embrace." By using her signature infrared film, she draws the life out of the verdant tropical flora and presents a chalky shadow, perhaps to comment that in the final analysis all meet the same skeletal end.

Other noteworthy works include fiber artist Patty Gallagher's showy "Birds of Rhiannon," Rita Lee Spalding's "Summertime" for construction that echoes the playful beach experience, John Yochem Winberg Jr.'s painstakingly stippled drawing, Pauline Michael's elegant monotype in "Black, White and Silver" and John Dorinsky's ink exploration of "The Artist's Mind, a Real Allegory."

There are, as in most such large surveys, some works of questionable merit. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the unfortunate, and now prevalent, practice of jurying by slides, which can bolster or diminish the experience of the actual work. Some pieces also gain or suffer by the juxtapositions inherent in such a show. While at times the works fell short of the potential expressed in their titles, the political or philosophical commentary some artists strove to make shows a laudable interest in tying in to the larger art world.

The University Art Gallery's fineness serves the show well, but constrictions are evident in the absence of some kinds of work. Also the hours of the opening are more akin to a scholar's schedule than to one of the biggest parties of the year for the local art community.

So a return to the Carnegie would bring back more than just the status of the venue on an artist's resume, although since the latter has become, to some, the major organizational perk it may be time to take a hard look at the AAP's mission and goals.

It's something president Tim Fabian is very interested in doing.

With the sale of 937 Liberty, Fabian points out, "The building ceases to be our focus" and AAP can now carry on unencumbered. "We lost sight of our mission and of our vision," he says. "I think we have to get that back in focus, and our vision is to get art on the walls."

The AAP hasn't yet been able to fit into Carnegie Museum of Art director Richard Armstrong's appointment book -- it had hoped for a May meeting, but he's been out of the country -- but, Fabian says, AAP and the Carnegie have maintained a correspondence. "We are certainly interested in getting back on the [Carnegie's] schedule as soon as we can, but exactly when that will be has yet to be determined. As much as I would like to announce that date at the opening of this show, we won't meet with Mr. Armstrong [to discuss it] by then," Fabian says.

While he emphasizes AAP's interest in returning to the Carnegie, Fabian praises the University Gallery staff and calls it a "wonderful venue" that's helped AAP to envision new exhibition possibilities.

"The first thing we need to do," he says, "is initiate our strategic planning process so that we can create the future we're now poised for."

Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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