At the Michael Berger Gallery in Point Breeze, the exhibit â€śmind/body/spiritâ€ť examines the collective state of consciousness through the work of four different artists.
For example, Huang Xiang and William Rock live in Pittsburgh, but couldnâ€™t be more different. Huang is a dissident Chinese poet who spent more than 10 years in prison for refusing to submit to the Communist Party propaganda machine. Rock is a dual citizen of Ireland and the United States. Yet these two artistsâ€™ works come together wonderfully in nine larger-than-life portraits on display.
Six of them take up an entire room in the back of the gallery, offering a place of contemplation on the lives of the persons depicted: Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mohandas Gandhi, Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare and Isadora Duncan.
Each portrait was painted by Rock, but the calligraphic writing of Huangâ€™s poetry is by Huang, with translated excerpts from each hanging next to the canvases.
For example, next to Elizabeth Barrett Browningâ€™s it reads: â€śSadness, sadness … sadness; Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth; your love story is like; of nightfall the memory of a spider comes dripping …â€ť
Many Pittsburghers know Huang is the first writer to be sponsored by Cities of Asylum/Pittsburgh, living in a North Side rowhouse, provided by the group, that is just a few doors down from the Mattress Factory. But what most donâ€™t know, is that Huang, 65, will soon leave Pittsburgh for New York City, with the intent of furthering his career, making this one of the few chances left to find out more about this most interesting artist and a city resident.
Another artist in the exhibition who left Pittsburgh for New York is Philip Pearlstein. Of course, that was more than a half-century ago when Pearlstein skipped town with a young Andy Warhol, sharing an eighth-floor walkup tenement apartment on St. Markâ€™s Place in the summer of 1949.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1924, Pearlstein has returned many times over the years, mostly at the prompting of scores of enthusiastic collectors here who are fascinated with his work.
Gallery owner Michael Berger is one of them, having not only collected, but shown Pearlsteinâ€™s work for nearly three decades.
â€śPearlstein is strictly surface,â€ť Berger is quick to point out — a rationalization of sorts about the nine prints by the artist on display.
The most memorable of these works may be â€śModels with Mirror,â€ť in which two female figures are seen as more than just academic subjects.
This is thanks in part to the fact that they are surreptitiously placed among an unusually curvaceous beveled mirror, a neatly geometric Navajo rug and equally stark early-American bench. The more-than-appropriately-placed mirror seemingly fuses one figure with its reflection seamlessly as if two persons intimately involved in conspiratorial whisperings.
Just as arresting is â€śModel and flamingo,â€ť which depicts an black female model situated between two pink flamingos, on a blue plastic inflatable chair. The figure is a clear study of light falling on flesh â€” almost to sculptural effect, as if light falling on plane â€” while the latter inclusions are ironically realized as colorful but arbitrary ornamental forms floating freely in the air.
So, it is that Pearlsteinâ€™s subjects are both heroic and flat, a combination that enables him to give the universality he discerns, even in contemporary reality, an ironic twist.
Interspersed among the Pearlstein prints are 11 mixed-media figurative works by David Tomb who hails from the San Francisco Bay area. Like Pearlsteinâ€™s pieces, all are figurative works. But here, they suffice more as psychological portraits as opposed to something starkly subjective.
For example, â€śLee with Blue Plaidâ€ť hints at the blue-collar dads many of us remember. Looking every bit the longshoreman in a blue plaid shirt, he could just as well be a steelworker of yesteryear collapsing after a difficult day. So palpable in appearance, youâ€™ll want to give it a beer, or least bring it home and place it in front of your TV set.
This work, like all of Tombâ€™s pieces on display, have a casual quality, which is underscored by disjunctured linear and spatial relationships. Thus, Tombâ€™s work can be read either as a Warholian blankness with an emphasis on surface or as harboring the moodily passive ambiguities and dreamy distances of a Richard Diebenkorn painting.
With their skittish lines and flatly painted planes, it might appear that Tombâ€™s portraits would weigh heavily on the surface-and-blankness side of the scale. Such stage-set-like figures seem to argue for a view of personality as facade, and formally, to work as much against the possibility of pictorial depth as against its psychological counterpart. Yet, these portraits are fully imbued with light and space, making one wonder how much air can hang between an eye and a nose?
Kurt Shaw can be reached at email@example.com.