Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

October 16th, 2005

‘Messages’ images come in loud and clear

By Kurt Shaw

Most likely the first installation visitors to the Mattress Factory will come to at the current show “Messages and Communications” will leave them feeling trapped as if in between the pages of a book. 
Titled “27 Correspondents,” the piece by Emil Lukas of Lafayette, Pa., makes the most of a voluminous 17-by-70 foot room on the museum’s fourth floor. In it, Lukas has placed 27 thin floor-to-ceiling wooden planks sporadically throughout the space. Varying in roughness, thickness and heft like so much scrap wood, these jauntily placed sculptural contraptions look as if they’ll snap like twigs under the pressure of the concrete ceiling. What’s more, sandwiched between the tips at either end are objects either dear to the artist or that reference the same: a negative plaster cast of a volleyball at one end opposite a photo of the volleyball team Lukas coaches at the other, or a plaster cast of a birds nest opposite another of eggs. Navigating around each plank through the space, one gets the feeling these that objects tell a story not unlike so many pressed roses. 

The notion of the book in Lukas’ piece is not unusual in this exhibition. In fact, the Mattress Factory’s curator of exhibitions Michael Olijnyk says, “The show started out with the idea of the book, but as we started looking at work we decided that that was too confining. We just kind of let it expand to include works that push that boundary.” 

Of the six artists represented in this exhibition, perhaps no one has pushed the boundaries more than Diane Samuels. This “local” artist is as local as they come: she lives literally a few doors down Sampsonia Way, the alleyway behind the Mattress Factory. 

That wouldn’t be significant except for one thing: for her entire installation “Mapping Sampsonia Way,” she focused on the alley itself — photographing it foot by foot, mapping it via satellite and filling an entire 828-foot long crack in it with gold leaf. She even went so far as to cast 28 feet of it in plaster — the part that lay just outside her door — and plop it inside the gallery on the floor. 

Altogether, the photographs take the form of a 30-foot-long digital print that is set up next to the plaster cast of the alley. In the margins of the print, as well as on top, Samuels has written the personal histories and stories of the people who either live or have lived along the alleyway, and in the glass that tops the print she has etched the comments she gathered from passersby who wondered what she was up to when she was out on the street, hovered over a tripod taking pictures of the asphalt. 

“It could never have been done by anyone except someone who lives here,” Olijnyk says of the project that took Samuels six months to complete. She says that of all the comments written on the glass, “My favorite one is the guy who drove up real fast, opened up his car door and asked, ‘What are you doing?” She described what she was doing and he said, “Oh, I’ve done that before.” 

Given all the work and time that Samuels put into the project, it may seem tedious and mundane at this reading. But upon seeing all of the various components of the project together, it’s likely that most will bask in its cleverness. 

Equally clever, in a room next to Samuels’ work, is a most peculiar sculpture by London-based artist Jonathan Callan. Titled “For Stuart Callan, 1962-2005,” the sculpture appears from a distance to look at first like a giant carnation blossom or a felled tree. But get closer and one will soon realize it is made entirely of books, nearly 1,000 books to be exact, shorn of their covers and screwed into place to form a massive, organic-looking blob. It took Callan and five assistants three weeks of 12-hour days to make the piece. But clearly, it was worth it because it’s a showstopper.

“There was no fast way to do it,” Olijnyk says. 

Having elements of humor, irony and provocation, the remaining works are as equally compelling as the previous three mentioned. 

Having filled the main room in the museum’s basement with a solar system of globes on which he has drawn numerous doodles, California artist Russell Crotty maps out imagined places such as “High Desert Meth Labs” and “Fake Ranch,” the latter supposed to represent President Bush’s ranch in Texas. 

Then there is Edie Tsong’s and Dennis Marsico’s pieces on the third floor. Tsong, another California artist, presents a life-size clay sculpture of herself, nude and pregnant, that visitors can touch and even manipulate and Marsico has created an entire library of sorts out of a round room. 

The library is particularly interesting, being bathed in black light and lined with wallpaper that is actually comprised of two life-size digital prints of photographs Marsico, a Pittsburgh-based photographer, made of the Homewood Library. In one, he completely removed the books with Photoshop. That fact, combined with the delightful bluish buzz coming from the black light, makes for an eerie experience that also underscores an obvious point about censorship. 

That makes even more sense when one realizes that Marsico is a real book nut. A fan of handmade books in particular, he makes his own on a 1936 Vandercook press. Several are on display in his library and feature poetry by local poets and designs by local designers. 

Marsico’s installation may be the one installation piece that comes the closest to the show’s initial concept, but even it goes a long way in proving Olijnik’s point about expanding upon the show’s main idea. 

It’s obvious it pushes the boundaries.