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Art & Museums

Bloomfield's Box Heart Gallery turning the tables

| Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, 4:54 p.m.
“Migration” oil painting by William DeBernardi
“Migration” oil painting by William DeBernardi
“The Mud and Straw of History - Preservation” oil painting by William DeBernardi
“The Mud and Straw of History - Preservation” oil painting by William DeBernardi
Andrew Ooi, Colony Series I, Gampi, Acrylic, Ink, 2016
Andrew Ooi, Colony Series I, Gampi, Acrylic, Ink, 2016
Andrew Ooi, Edo X, Gampi, Acrylic, Ink, Graphite, 2016
Andrew Ooi, Edo X, Gampi, Acrylic, Ink, Graphite, 2016
Dale Huffman, Faceted Teapot, Porcelain, 2014-2017
Dale Huffman, Faceted Teapot, Porcelain, 2014-2017
Andrew Ooi, Adaptation, Gampi, Acrylic, Ink, 2015
Andrew Ooi, Adaptation, Gampi, Acrylic, Ink, 2015

Two new exhibits on display at Box Heart Gallery in Pittsburgh's Bloomfield neighborhood turn the tables on the observer.

Firstly, with the work of William DeBernardi and Dale Huffman in the first floor gallery, which showcases the talents of two lifelong artist-educators from Pittsburgh. And secondly, on the second floor with the work of Canadian artist Andrew Ooi in his solo show “IOI OOI New Primitives,” in which he responds to the artwork of Australian Aborigines.

DeBernardi being the most obvious, his work is a good place to start. A professor emeritus in art at Carlow University, this Shadyside resident has been painting images of people observing every day life for the past 10 years.

Now he has turned his attention to technology, or more specifically observing people using technology in their every day lives. Especially cell phones, as seen in nearly a dozen of his works on display.

This recently completed group of paintings relate to humans experiencing technology in real time. While the previous work was aimed more at isolating figures and examining the gestures and idiosyncrasies of daily rituals and unguarded moments, these more narrative paintings also involve more social commentary based on the figures' relationships with the environment and each other and in many cases technology.

For example, in the piece “The Mud and Straw of History: Evolution/Extinction” DeBernardi depicts a man taking a picture with his cellphone of a dinosaur display at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

In “The Mud and Straw of History: Preservation,” a similar scene plays out at the same museum, but this time a man is depicted sitting near a rather dramatic yet all too familiar diorama, again fiddling with his cellphone.

With these pieces DeBernardi juxtaposes people absorbed in technology with an environment (i.e. the Carnegie Museum of Natural History) that preserves and presents examples of the past. “The figures become very much like the historical displays around them and get absorbed into the environment in a way that may foreshadow future depictions of the past,” DeBernardi says.

The large painting titled “Migration” is intended to be a more monumental or epic narrative about passage or change. The scale, staging, lighting and the imagery of migrating crows give a more dramatic, theatrical or “cinematic” presentation to the story.

“While there is seriousness to the observations concerning our society and the current state of development of humanity, I would hope that the viewer sees the lightness of the human comedy that is also depicted in the work,” DeBernardi says.

DeBernardi's paintings offer a fitting backdrop to fellow art educator Dale Huffman. Since 1999 this Mt. Washington resident has taught ceramics and sculpture at Carlow University, where he is currently chairman of the art department.

Huffman showcases several recent pots in this exhibit that offer a delicate balance between Eastern and Western influences.

One of the issues Huffman has been exploring lately is the intuitive development of form. “My best work happens when I feel I'm a vehicle through which the work is flowing,” Huffman says.

“My pristine porcelain work of many years ago was comfortable, and it was understandable in only a brief moment. My current work is sometimes unsettling.”

Understanding it takes extended contact and is often not achieved the first time the work is encountered.

On the second floor, Toronto-based Ooi showcases his intricate Gampi paper constructions that are a nod to the artists of Papunya Tula, an Australian Aboriginal tribe.

“I found myself really drawn to their work for a number of reasons,” says Ooi. “One, they used simple lines, dots and shapes to either express, communicate, or illustrate thoughts, feelings, scenes ­— not only among each other — but outside of their tribe as well. Two, the Papunya Tula tribe still exists today, and among them very renowned artists: still using the same mark making, patterns, compositions and more to express both the same old thoughts, feelings and scenes and the new ones too.”

Here, in works like “Edo X” and “Adaptation” dots and other markings resemble those shared among, tribes, among people, civilizations, dating back to primitive man that make them so telling, so useful, and tried-and-true. “Basically, these marks are a universal language, and in their timelessness are always they key components to start any form of expression from. That if expression, in the form of art, ever became uneven, or complicated, confusing or restricted that returning back to the fundamental elements would be a sure way to get back to what was so important to begin with about expression itself.”

For Ooi all these marks were made with a limited color palette. “Primitive man didn't need more, or didn't need to invent more to show more or be more,” Ooi says. “They just needed to know how to use what they had to build a library of meaning, that could then be used in a number of ways; structures, patterns, etc. I really appreciate that.”

Sometimes, it's not about inventing a new language, but figuring out new ways the old one can be employed.

“I hope people who see my work find that they are less trying to figure out, and more trying to feel it out; that maybe there is something about the universal language that resonates with them so intuitively that they recognize something in it without knowing from where and when it came from, but that it makes sense, and that sometimes that's enough,” Ooi says.

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.

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