Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Biennial showcases work in film, video, photography

July 27, 2011

The "2011 Pittsburgh Biennial" on view at Pittsburgh Center for The Arts and the Carnegie Museum of Art includes a much-smaller showing at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which is worth seeking out.
 
The exhibit offers visitors a sense of the kind of work being done in film, video and photography in our region at the moment.
 
Featuring the work of just four artists -- Olivia Ciummo, Ben Hernstrom, Emily Newman and Carrie Schneider -- the show is tucked neatly in and around the second-floor art gallery housed at Filmmakers.
 
The first piece visitors will likely encounter is Ciummo's short film "I Never Made it Without Trying." Finished in 2009, but shot over a 4-year period between 2004 and 2008, it features collected imagery that comes from many places the artist has traveled to over those years, ranging from around Pittsburgh to as far away as Barcelona.
 
But here, the imagery has been softened, blurred and made a bit fuzzy to represent, at least visually, the process of memory. This effect is accomplished in part to an elaborate production process in which the images were re-photographed, re-printed and distorted through a process called contact printing in order make the resultant "look" of the film. The result is as if everything the artist has experienced has been melted together and is bleeding past the frame. Thus, the images reference ideas around shifts in memory and its malleability.
 
Ciummo, who teaches art at Edinboro University, added a sound element to the film that, coupled with the imagery, makes it all the more resonate, making for a palpable experience that goes well beyond the mere source material that went into the film's making.
 
Just around the corner from Ciummo's piece, Hernstrom's massive (14-foot-by-8-foot) photograph "Untitled (Skagaströnd fog 1_4)" references memory through an equal haze.
 
Basically a landscape photograph of a farmstead, as seen through heavy fog, the piece was shot in Skagaströnd, Iceland, where Hernstrom, a Pittsburgher from McKeesport, was attending an artist residency program last August. He spent July in Reykjav'k at the SÍM residency.
 
Primarily a video artist, Hernstrom worked a lot with still photography while at both residencies, choosing to focus his lens on both man-made and natural environments.
 
Hernstrom says he rarely, if ever, includes human subjects in his photographs. "To some degree, I am more interested in cataloging these spaces than anything else, which may come from my background in documentary filmmaking," he says. "A lot of the images seem to be continuations of each other, or maybe they only really make sense when seen together."
 
Perhaps, but this one massive image goes a long way in presenting the big picture that Hernstrom is theoretically painting: one of scale, relative isolation and the feeling that our world is still a large and mysterious place.
 
Brooklyn-based artist Carrie Schneider's 6 1/2-minute video "Slow Dance" will likely pull visitors into Filmmakers' actual gallery. Like Hernstrom's image, her film is display large and lush, full of dark, rich color that sets the mood for the subject.
 
Schneider is interested in the dive bar as a place where private desires are on public display. Hence, she has created a film in which two strangers meet in a bar, slow dance, then oddly double, as each has another person literally writhing on the back of one another.
 
"At once wholly contemporary, the bar has timeless characters we can all recognize," Schneider says. "In fact, many of my characters were modeled after Brassai's photographs of Parisian nightlife in the 1920s to '30s."
 
The film is simultaneously erotic and creepy, made all the more so by the addition of a fifth character -- an ominous-looking female bartender who leers at the whole encounter with a wicked stare.
 
Finally, Emily Newman's film/video/installation "Rock n' Roll Wolf" dramatizes a 1976 film of the same title that is an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, "The Wolf and the Seven Goats."
 
Through the use of additional film and video work of the artist's own creation, as well as a puppet set, Newman has created her own adaptation in which an American mother and her Russian-born son play a game, manipulating puppets of themselves inside a model of their country shack -- or dacha. The mother tries to learn how her child negotiates the divide between his Russian and English-speaking personae in order to follow him into the linguistic territory usually denied her. Through the narrative frame of the fairy tale, motherhood is revealed to be an uncanny condition, at once resisting invasion and bemoaning exclusion.
 
Newman, who splits her time between between St. Petersburg, Russia, and Pittsburgh, says she chose the 1976 film "Rock n' Roll Wolf" as the starting point for this piece because in many ways it brings together the perspective of both a resident and an outsider as one relates to a particular sense of place.
 
"The film was produced by an international cast and crew and filmed four times in Russian, English, French and Romanian," Newman says. "Unusually, the four films are not overdubbed copies of an original -- each version is re-scripted in each of the four languages producing an uncanny resonance with the language issues that lie at the heart of the plot of the fairytale itself