Artists view labor, body, materials in Space exhibit

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 7:05 p.m.

The exhibit “Psychic Panic,” at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Space gallery, features more than two dozen artworks in a range of media by nine artists.

And, though they each have something decidedly different to say, collectively they investigate “connections between labor, the body and materials,” says the exhibit's organizer, Olivia Ciummo, a filmmaker, artist, curator and educator based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The artists are not only from Pittsburgh, but all across the United States. They include Erin Leland, Derya Hanife Altan, Selima Dawson, Kevin Jerome Everson, Elina Malkin, Susannah Mira, Tara Merenda Nelson, Ross Nugent and Ciummo herself, who has a video addressing the fracking industry titled “Can't Sail on Fracktured Water.”

“I invited these particular artists to comment with me on the themes, and the resulting artworks are our endeavors to confront the connections through photography, film, video, painting, sculpture and mixed media,” Ciummo says.

Some of the artists have done so in overt ways, such as Susannah Mira of Houston, Texas, whose “Fur Fixture” is one of the first pieces visitors will see.

Basically a copper pipe wrapped in rabbit fur and hung horizontally, the piece presupposes an era in which common synthetics have become scarce, Mira says, and primitive materials serve as substitutes in a variety of applications. “It also parodies a luxury market in which high-end versions of the most basic tools and accessories are retailed to the aspiring or super-rich,” she says.

Selima Dawson of East Liberty displays a variety of works she has completed over the past seven years. “Much of the motivation of my work has been to express emotional states and experiences and to create something that communicates with the viewer in a strong way,” she says.

There are four pieces that use the body to express emotional and physical experiences, “Broken,” “Mercy Please,” “Thicker Than Water” and “Dis-ease.”

“They deal with emotional and physical trauma and how those experiences affect the body and the mind,” Dawson says.

Elina Malkin's “Flex Space” installation addresses the changing use of industrial spaces in the post-manufacturing economy. Former factories, warehouses and office spaces still have an architectural impact on our landscape, even if they are no longer in use as originally intended. Some are simply abandoned, often still containing machinery, furniture and other relics of the labor that once occurred.

For Malkin, who lives in a mixed industrial-and-residential section of Pittsburgh on the edge of North Oakland, watching the slow transition of many buildings in her neighborhood has been an eye-opening experience.

“I am interested in what happens to urban spaces when they lie fallow, not situated in a trendy neighborhood or otherwise vulnerable to gentrification, empty until productive jobs and industry can hopefully occupy them again,” she says.

Then, there is Bloomfield-based filmmaker Ross Nugent's 12-minute video, “Steel Mill Rolling.” Describing it as “an observational documentary,” Nugent says it as a hybrid between an industrial and an art film.

It was shot at a functioning steel mill in Farrell, Mercer County, and highlights the hot-mill process in which steel slabs are processed into thin sheets that can be used for textiles, automobiles, etc.

“The plant is now Russian-owned, named NLMK-Pennsylvania,” Nugent says. “Many generations of my family have been employed at that mill; my father still works there, and I was employed there in the summer of 2002 while in college.”

For Nugent, the main interest in focusing on this steel plant was in highlighting the activity that remains — “Steel ain't dead,” he says — juxtaposed with the industrial decay that surrounds it. “There is an essay in there somewhere, but I decided to let the audience fill in the blanks, as it were,” he says.

Nugent says the industrial-themed soundtrack that accompanies the display functions to introduce visitors to the “space” in the beginning part of the film, then switches into a musical score, created by collaborator Isaac Sherman, which maintains a particularly resonant tone.

As for Ciummo's video “Can't Sail on Fracktured Water,” much like Nugent's video, it makes a comment on an industry that has its own set of issues, especially the negative ramifications as it relates to local water sources. Her piece rounds out the “connections between labor, the body and materials” thoroughly in regard to a contemporary context, making for a compelling exhibition experience.

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

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