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Art Reviews: Felix de la Concha finds every day's a good day for painting

Saturday, August 28, 1999

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

One painting of a Pittsburgh landmark exhibited in the Carnegie Museum of Art is unlikely to draw much attention, but a presentation of 365 of them certainly arouses curiosity. The allure of Felix de la Concha's "One A Day: 365 Views of the Cathedral of Learning," however, is more than numerical.

The Spanish artist, in long-term residency in Pittsburgh, painted, daily, a view of the city that included the cathedral in its background. The result is an outsider's exploration of a component of Pittsburgh that is as telling about the artist as it is about the locale.

The 11-by-9-inch landscapes were actually completed over a period of two years, since de la Concha was away periodically, but they are fit within a timeline that begins in late summer (Aug. 25, 1998), hung inside the Forum Gallery. The cycle is completed in a group of paintings that hang just outside the gallery, the final one of which was finished Tuesday: Aug. 24, 1999.

The 40 works outside the gallery were painted after the exhibition opened on July 17 and first appeared as blank canvases on the wall. Each day, de la Concha replaced one of these with a newly finished painting, an unusual device in itself, which draws attention to the immediacy of the works.

In an exhibition brochure, Mark Francis, a former curator at The Andy Warhol Museum, says that de la Concha, in choosing the Cathedral of Learning, was making a conscious reference to Warhol's 1964 film, "Empire." The latter is an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building shown to audiences in toto. De la Concha's day-frame recordings, completed plein-air, also harbor that persistent gaze toward an urban temple.

Too, while the paintings have an accuracy that recalls painting traditions -- these are not mere sketches but finely completed works -- they are not dramatic, and their everyday presentation and peripheral subject matter give nod to Warholian influence as well as historic realism.

They excel, though, because de la Concha has put his imprint upon them. By blending familiar subject matter and academic refinement, he presents a consideration of architecture and place that raises intriguing questions about perception. The degree to which such looming structures enter consciousness, the significance they carry and their designed or accrued symbolic value all reflect the community they exist within. At one time, the tallest structures in a village or town were church spires, and the use of "cathedral" in the name of this 42-story tower of education had implications in the 1920s and '30s, when it was built, that have shifted in succeeding decades.

The sites and objects selected by de la Concha to include in each painting make comment about our urban landscape, and America in general, while they also speak to the artist's particular tastes, and how he envisions this country. For example, are the electrical lines lacing a painting's foreground reflective of the artist's eye for composition or a commentary on how the pragmatic vulgarizes our neighborhoods?

As a whole, the paintings attest to the power of diligent observation and while they offer an encapsulated walking tour of an area of Pittsburgh, they are anything but pedestrian.

Morgan Contemporary Glass Gallery, Shadyside, has "New Work" by three artists and some gourmet "leftovers" from Amy Morgan's booth at the recent important Glassweekend in New Jersey.

A standout is the one remaining work by Michael Rogers whose "Octavio Paz Bottle" is appropriately pensive. Tracey Ladd, exhibited last year, is back with more infatuating work. Although her mixed-media sculptures incorporate found objects and forms Ladd fabricates from other materials, they receive their solidity from their cast-glass bases and their mystery from the selectively revealed translucent depth of the glass.

Stuart Braunstein and Jane Bruce work with the vessel form and their rich carved shapes glow from within: Hers, resembling stone, emit light like solid dark jewels; his, icily cool on the outside, have interiors that are a feat of carving through colored layers of glass that for all the world appear to be paint.

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