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Art Reviews: Associated Artists take exciting direction with three different types of exhibitons

Saturday, January 22, 2000

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

The Associated Artists of Pittsburgh have been in a process of revitalization since they moved to their prominent location in the Cultural District, reviewing organizational goals and exhibition standards and discussing ways to best make use of the three very different floors of their building.

Funk-tional ceramic sculptures by Pittsburgh artist Laura McLaughlin are expressive, full of social content and, at least in the case of the oil lamp in the foreground (note the wicks), have true function. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

This weekend their house is full, with a range of activity that suggests exciting direction in the new year: a striking production created for the evocative first floor that will be performed for the final time tonight, a commendable survey of member ceramists on the second floor, and a dream-like installation that transforms the SoHo-like large third floor.

"Clepsydra," described as an "installation with 13 performers," began as a conversation between Pittsburgh designer and AAP exhibition facilitator Richard Mihm and Efrain Amaya, assistant conductor of the Westmoreland Symphony and the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic Orchestra, and music director and conductor for the Westmoreland Youth Symphony Orchestra. They were discussing the possibilities for the time-worn, tile-lined first floor, which is equal parts ruin and magic. The result is a highly ambitious, time-intensive and all-embracing site-specific performance work that is the kind of gift to an audience that can only come from a labor of love.

By the time the whole was realized, a year after the initial conversation, a large and diverse group of artists - including writers and a stage director - had collaborated to produce an audio/visual work steeped in drama and expression.

The artists responded to the inherent sensuality of the room and elaborated upon it. Panels of paintings by Susana Amundarain - abstract works saturated in the walls' golds and grays, flaming with red's passion - are as integral to the overall effect as is the musical score. The initial painting the visitor sees is meditatively quiet in its minimalism and invites the visitor to leave behind the outside world; a stroke of red signals transition in the next painting, located mid-way, and others in the large open area beyond speak of poetic ritual. At the room's far side, two brilliantly clear video projections by Vanessa Briceno introduce light and motion. Their elegant imagery of water alternated with a figural narrative that is allegorical for (man)kind and (mother) earth heightens the concept of a transcendent space.

It is in this space that the story of the clepsydra unfolds (an ancient device for measuring time using water, represented here by Gerry Dinnen's ceramic bowls and Anthony Valvano's large wooden vessel). Subset to that is a consideration of time itself that calls attention to the arbitrariness of its construct and therefore the possibility of reconfiguring it to artistic ends. Over all of this, plays a heroically charged symphonic audio track - epic in scope - that intertwines vocal texts inspired by three topics: eclipse, dreams and ritual.

Tonight at 8, a new dimensionality will be given to the 24-minute work through a live performance with 11 classical musicians; mezzo-soprano Jeanne Wentworth, who performs with the Dayton Opera; and tenor Douglas Ahlstedt, who has sung 189 performances with the Metropolitan Opera and is teaching at CMU.

The performance, which is free, was given only one other time, during First Night festivities. The installation, sans performers but with CD audio, may be experienced through today. The paintings and audio will remain through Feb. 11, but without the videos because money for the projector rental has run out.

?"Ceramics for the New Millennium," curated by ceramist and member Gerry Dinnen, includes 41 works by 15 members and is an idea whose time has come. While Pittsburgh has not been a strong center of sculptural ceramics, that deficit has been shrinking along with all of the other growth in art activity in the region. This exhibition displays the strengths -and the weaknesses - of clay work in the AAP membership.

Ceil Leeper Sturdevant continues to evolve her strong, well-made figural works that have spiritual overtone. Laura McLaughlin, a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh, has admirably kicky form that belies the depth of concept that she glazes and carves into her pieces. Those shown have great style, but are not among her strongest. Steve Kemenyffy is a ceramist of national repute, and his "SSIP Christ/ SSIP Serrano" is a positive, if visually saturated, departure from the sumptuously decorative raku works he and his wife Susan (also exhibiting) generally make.

Where the region shines is with the well-conceived and thrown vessel, here represented by the skilled glazing of Valda Cox (herself a local star), Nancy Smith's carefully patterned forms and Dale Huffman's very capable, Asian-inspired pots intensified of late by wood firing.

The vigor of the overall work in this exhibition suggests a place for perhaps a biennial ceramic exhibition that would encourage artists to show their best pieces and the public to attend for review.

Be sure to check out the ephemeral installation on the third floor, "Figurative Language, Image and Metaphor," which has been extended through Feb. 11.

The gallery is at 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. The performance CD is for sale at the gallery.

There was more reason to celebrate the future of the visual arts in Pittsburgh at the openings Thursday night for the inaugural exhibitions at Carnegie Mellon University's Regina Gouger Miller Gallery. The exemplary exhibition space is spread over three floors of the new Purnell Center for the Arts, expanding markedly on that of the Hewlett Gallery in the College of Fine Arts, which it replaces.

New York artist Sharon Louden lectured on her artwork before crowds went to see her glowing (literally) installation, "swells and extensions." Other exhibitions are Termite TV's Living Documentaries and an evolved Conversations in the Rustbelt: Brownfields into Greenways display by the Nine Mile Run Project crew.

Exhibitions remain up through March 3. The gallery is open 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Information: 412-268-3618.

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