Archive for February, 2010


Spatial Organization and the Mentality of a Generation

February 24, 2010

Visual Acoustics, a documentary about Julius Shulman’s life and work, will be playing at the Melwood Screening Room from February 26th through the 28th.

Our philosophy permeates all of our creations. The southern Californian optimism and openness of the mid-twentieth century was built into the architecture and is reflected in Julius Shuman’s photographs thereof.

Julius Shulman's California

Julius Shulman was the foremost architectural photographer of the last century. He documented the modernist and avant-garde homes, offices, and public buildings that were erected during the second half of the twentieth century. His photos portray an aesthetic movement, and are themselves works of art.

The photographs reflect a desire for simplicity, open space, and order. They are filled with repeated geometric forms: rectangles, straight lines, parallel lines, Cartesian grids. Negative space is emphasized, as is a parallelism between the structures and their shadows. The photos are thus mathematical; they are visualizations of linear transformations.

Jutting house

Architecture of the time worked to eliminate the boundary between artificial structure and nature. Many of Shulman’s photographs feature trees growing through houses, rooms with only three walls, rock formations as part of a home’s décor. They show the house as part of southern California’s natural drama and geology.

His photos give the impression of space, often by placing the vanishing point outside a window, making a room seem not only limitless, but also a natural extension of the landscape beyond it. By blending the outside with the inside, he juxtaposes natural chaos with modernist order and simplicity.

Learn more about his life and work this weekend by watching Visual Acoustics at the Melwood Screening Room.

Shulman, Julius and Pierluigi Serraino. Modernism Rediscovered. Cologne: Taschen GmbH. 2000


Oscar Nominated Short Films at the Regent and the Harris

February 24, 2010

The 8 animated shorts that have been nominated or highly commended are currently at the Regent Square Theatre and will soon run at the Harris.

The series starts with the film French Roast, a short visual comedy from France in which a wealthy man at a café realizes he has forgotten his wallet, and, to avoid the humiliation of having to admit he has no money, continually orders coffee and attempts to rob a sleeping nun. The film explores the issues of shame, panic, and feelings of failure surrounding a lack of money, and points out that money is not so much an object as a state of mind.

comedy and class consciousness

Another of the films, Runaway, also uses the imagery of wealth to poke fun. In it, a train hits a cow and loses control, going faster and faster around hills and through caves. At one point it comes to an impasse: it must continue up a hill or slide backwards off a broken track. At this point more fuel is needed. The train has two compartments: one for the wealthy and one for the proletariat. The wealthy pay the working class for their clothes, which are thrown into the engine. When enough energy is generated, the wealthy cut the chord to the second car, letting the poor slide away naked into oblivion. The film is a humorous metaphor for a class society run amok where anyone with a dollar can disenfranchise the poor with the lure of wealth, and where the poor are abused for their resources, which are used as fuel for the rich.

the silliness of wealth

The longest and most famous of the shorts “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” a Wallace and Gromit film in which the two are bakers. It includes the type of visual antics and ideal machines that have made these films so popular. The CD player in their delivery wagon makes toast, for example. The film is perfect British humor, in which subtlety and calmness are used to get total wackiness to come off as normalcy. The story and imagery are so compelling that you forget the hero is a machinist dog, with whom you identify more than with any of the human characters.

Gromit knows the truth

Granny O’Grimm, using a mix of claymation and animation, juxtaposes two imagery systems to make a point about beauty and fairy tale mythos. In it, there is a radical change of color and aesthetic between the clay grandma telling her sadistic, but rather more realistic, version of the Sleeping Beauty story, and the halcyon water-color-like fairy tale itself. In this Sleeping Beauty, appearance is a curse, a fact you have to come to terms with, a marker that dictates your place in society and has to be integrated into your identity.

Do we have to invite the elderly fairy?

Partly Cloudy, a 6-minute, wordless piece also deals with issues of beauty and acceptance. In this surreal comedy, babies, puppies, and kittens are made by clouds and sent to Earth via a network of storks. One cloud, a grey yet cheerful puff, makes the animals that don’t activate our cute filters, such as rams, electric eels, sharks, and alligators. His stork struggles to deliver these animals, often suffering from his exposure to their brutal defensive capabilities. The film is thus a study of cuteness and affection, with the cheerful message that affection can overcome the appeal of cuteness.

stork at your service

Only one of the short shorts is not a comedy. The Kinematograph is a Polish film with that uniquely Eastern European sense of loss and betrayal by unknown powers. It deals with a loving relationship in which one personality overbears the other. Many relationships have only one narrative, and it is controlled by the more intense of the two partners. When the less intense person dies, the other must reevaluate the narrative he has built up. After a death, the world of the deceased seems to open up before the begrieved more than it ever did during the mourned one’s life. Her feelings, thoughts, and perceptions seem suddenly readable. The primary narrator realizes, and must come to terms with, the narrative and point of view that he has ignored and perhaps even suppressed. For a time he seems to integrate the deceased’s consciousness into his own, and with it he rethinks the world and his place in it. His intensity wanes, his Self becomes less of a monolithic power, and he becomes more human.

His drama takes precedence

The last of the shorts is Logorama, which is preceded by a warning about its violence and strong language. The world in which it takes place is one in which everything is made of brand images. It retools logos based on their size, shape, and meaning, and uses them as buildings, cars, guns, and even a sinkhole. The brands are not limited to dry corporate entities. Indeed, the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey posters are to be seen on the walls. It actually looks a lot like your average American strip mall, only more colorful and wacky. All the characters are icons, and they interact in typical action movie fashion. One thousand years ago, the stock story was of a heroic adventurer who used cunning and gumption to overcome the forces of evil. Nowadays the story is of a couple of sassy cops using pithiness and guns to overcome some unbelievably selfish bad guy who has even more guns. Logorama is the perfect satire of the symbol systems and stories that permeate our media-heavy lives. It satirizes how we create our world, the narratives we develop and buy, the personalities we expect, the simplicity of the images we interact with, and the dimensionless conflict of our modern fables.

Do you think she'll go out with me if I buy a nice car?

These films are at the Regent Square Theatre until February 25th. From February 26th through March 4th, they will be at the Harris. See the Filmmakers website for show times.


Cluster: How Do You Make Meaning?

February 19, 2010

Cluster, a colorful multi-media, multi-artist exhibit based on the theme ‘compressed data,’ is currently open and will be at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts until March 25th. Artists were given a great deal of freedom, causing the exhibit to be rich in its range of interpretations, ideas, and media.

Cluster icon

We live in a world of endless stimuli, imagery, and change. Our nature is to take data and categorize it, creating symbol systems that allow us to navigate through reality. Cluster explores personal versus communal symbol systems, and allows us to see how a variety of artists have interpreted the vast amounts of data that confront them on a daily basis. Some of the Cluster artists seek to create order, others to explode reality, and still others want to pick up scraps and use them to determine what it was all about.

Many pieces show a mixture of iconography, drawing connections between ideas and symbols that occur in our daily lives. In an untitled work by Brian Brown, Star-Bellied Sneetches flank a man riding a camel through the desert. The two images embody representations stored in vastly different mental compartments, and seeing them together is both surprising and humorous. Meanwhile, Jason Lee, in his work “Euthenic Set: Suburban Landscape,” satirizes how we over-organize space, creating false boundaries in a vain attempt to create a sanitized ideal. He plays with the ideas of compartmentalism, artificiality, and perfection.

Jacob Ciocci’s work “Trapped and Frozen Forever” is an exploration of icons, in both the cultural and computer senses of the word. His giant painting/video/collage rushes together in full color, like our collective cultural memory displayed before us. There are skulls, smiley faces, jack o’ lanterns, religious symbols, wicked witches, bones, and a bald eagle. It is all in the purple, black and neons that formed the mental wallpaper of my late 80’s youth. Within this wild jumble there are home videos, giving the work the feeling of a scrapbook in which all of the dream-like symbols of a media-heavy childhood were placed.

One work that particularly resonated with me was Connie Cantor’s “Mystery as the Seed of Liberation.” The painting is like a supernova, an active and intuitive piece with gold and bronze forms on a black background, illuminated by silver lines and blue ovals. Within the chaos, shapes are to be found: humans, animals, and bones. Cantor refers to it as expressing her “personal iconography.”

By going to Cluster, you will be able to compare your symbol system with those of others, and see which overlaps are universal, which are cultural, and which symbols are uniquely your own.

On Thursday, March 11th a discussion session will be held with Cluster curator Adam Welch as well as Cluster artists Dee Briggs, Connie Cantor, Jacob Ciocci, and David Pohl. A cash bar will open at 5:00, and the talk will take place at 6:00 pm at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.


Bridges, Underpasses, and Heart

February 5, 2010

This is the perfect time of year to see Kaoru Tohara’s “The City Within”, on display until February 28th at Filmmakers. It is a thought-provoking and celebratory exhibit of black-and-white photographs of our city. Tohara, a native of Tokyo, sees the city as the manifestation of the people who make it up. Looking at his photos is like looking into a mirror; you see yourself and your surroundings from another perspective.

The photographs document the transition that we will all soon encounter. The exhibit begins with a series taken during the winter, where nature is all but absent, and the Euclidean geometry of man-made objects overpowers the natural elements that hide in the background of the images. The final images in the exhibit are from the summer, showing nature reclaiming its place in our city.

Tohara’s deft portrayal of the little and humanizing details that are often ignored makes you think about how every object hints at its makers and its users. Looking at these photographs is like putting on your favorite T-shirt, the one whose holes and stains give it sentimental value. The photos show what life does to commonly used objects.