Nihilism meets objectification in Downtown Pittsburgh display

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Two solo art exhibits, side by side at the moment in Downtown Pittsburgh, are worthy of a look. That's because each offers a window into the artistic oeuvres of two very different, yet equally ambitious local artists — Craig Freeman and Fabrizio Gerbino.

Freeman lives in Bloomfield, where he has kept a studio for the last four years. The 11 drawings and seven paintings by him on display in his exhibit “Cartoon Nihilism,” at 707 Penn Gallery, are a continuation of work he began several years ago. It focuses on the re-contextualization and re-appropriation of cartoon imagery, mostly dating to the “Golden Age of Animation,” which began with the advent of sound cartoons in 1928 and continued into the early 1960s.

It was a time when cartoons, though geared toward children, contained many adult themes, such as the consumption of alcohol, mild racism, even suicide. Thus, visitors to this exhibit will find everything from images of sawed-off bear arms, as depicted in the drawing “The Right Two Bear Arms,” to Mickey Mouse legs sticking out from under an anvil in the painting “I Wished for Things But Got Instead, An Anvil Dropped Upon My Head.”

Freeman says the overall theme and statement for the exhibit comes together visually in this painting to create a scene of both “humor and despair,” with the “punchline” finally being the satirical poetic title.

“By appropriating and re-contextualizing cartoon imagery, what was once known as being innocent or humorous now becomes cynical and absurd,” he says.

In another painting titled “One Two, Three Four,” the nihilistic aspect of this exhibit becomes apparent when the viewer is confronted with classic recognizable cartoon hands that seem to be silently and pointlessly counting, creating an infinite absurdity.

In the remaining large works of oil on canvas and smaller framed graphite drawings on antique paper Freeman took from books and tablets, recognizable characters and illustrations are elevated from graphic imagery into a more conceptual presentation without losing the cartoonish nature of the imagery itself.

“Using the imagery as a vessel, I am combining images usually most associated with pleasantness, such as Mickey Mouse, and putting my own expression of depression and despair into them, allowing me to create works of art that fulfill my own need of expression, while giving an audience who revel in the absurd, something to enjoy,” he says.

Whereas Freeman's works have a wry sense of humor all their own, Gerbino's work, on the other hand, is more formal, even cold.

Originally from Florence, Italy, Gerbino has been living and working in Stowe since 2003, when he moved to the Pittsburgh area with his family. Since then, he has visited several factories and recycling sites, either on Neville Island or near Stowe, for inspiration in the creation of a series of works related to urban spaces, industrial buildings, and abandoned industrial objects.

One of the 10 paintings by Gerbino in his show, “Untitled (Gas Holding Tank),” for example, relates to Gerbino's visit at Shenango Corporation of Neville Island several years ago. “I was able to see a large gas holding tank one day before it was demolished,” Gerbino says. “It was a very impressive, enormous structure.”

That painting, one of the largest in the exhibit, hangs near the gallery's entrance, setting the mood for the show. For Gerbino, many other paintings came out of his visit to Shenango, some of which also are on display here.

Conversely, a smaller work on paper, “Untitled (Condominium),” relates to a balcony at Gerbino's former residence in Florence.

“It is a point of departure, in the painting process, but frequently the point of departure subject will transform into a different abstraction,” Gerbino says. “This balcony may represent something from my memory of Florence.”

Born in Tripoli, Libya, Gerbino's parents were Italian citizens who left Libya when he was 2 months old.

“I've lived most of my life in Florence,” he says. “I studied art in Florence and exhibited work in Florence, Turin, Bologna and also in Dusseldorf, Germany.”

Also on display is a very personal painting of Gerbino's father's hand. An untitled work, it was painted directly from a video of his father that was filmed days before his recent death.

On the canvas, paint drips from his father's fingers. Leaving the drip was a purposeful decision, a poetic expression using the paint itself.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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