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SPACE exhibit shows pop art's alive and well

| Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009

During his lifetime, and even after, pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-87) was plagued by fake copies of his work.

Onetime studio assistant Gerard Malanga, who helped create many of Warhol's most famous silk-screen paintings, has admitted to making unauthorized Warhol works while the artist was alive, and after his death. The works were so similar that even artist Julian Schnabel bought one thinking it was the real deal. And most collectors of Warhol's work are well aware of the European edition of Marilyn prints signed "Sunday B. Morning," which also are unauthorized.

The idea that a fake could easily pass as the real thing is now very much a tenet of pop culture as we know it. And many pop artists today use the concept of fake, or faking it, in their work, either directly or indirectly, either as spoof, or as a vehicle to get across a particular message.

Take for example the current exhibit at SPACE, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's massive Downtown gallery. Titled "Smoke & Mirrors," its underlying theme is just that -- the concept of the fake, or faking it.

"The exhibition began with the idea of including work by artists who've tweaked their personas a bit in order to effect how their work is perceived," says the show's organizer Jesse Hulcher. "This would include work by artists who assume aliases and pseudonyms and work by artists who take on a contrived aesthetic, which could mean that they display an aesthetic which is below their skill-set in order to give certain meaning to the work."

To illustrate the point, Hulcher says that "a crayon drawing of a house could take on new meaning if you discover that it's been drawn by a 30-year-old as opposed to a 6-year-old."

Warhol himself likely would have approved of JD Walsh's pop-art combinations in which, like Warhol's Brillo boxes, he mixes oversized screenprint versions of things like a Dentyne carton and J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" paperback.

"For the most part, I suppose, the exhibition really calls for viewers to take a closer look at what these artists are doing," Hulcher says, "encouraging a deeper appreciation for artists whose work may not be exactly what it seems upon first glance."

Other works are less noticeably fake, as in Guthrie Lonergan's "Floor Warp 2," which appears as if an endless walk on wood-plank flooring, but in reality it's the same image extended a few feet per second.

Then there's Thad Kellstadt's installation "Darkness, Imprisoning Me," which appears to replicate a contemporary teenager's lair. Inside the shack-like structure the artist built in the gallery, visitors will find a skater punk video playing on an old TV set amid a pile of full garbage bags, framed doodles and a thrift-store couch. Off in the corner is the only hint that things aren't all as they seem -- a poster of grunge-rock superstars, Nirvana. "Smells Like Teen Spirit?" I think not. At 32, Kellstadt is hardly a teen.

At least Ladyboy admits to his age via his digital print "1987 was awesome," if not his name. A thorough reading of the show's price list reveals that Ladyboy is none other than Tommy Budjanec, a native Western Pennsylvania who relocated to San Diego when he turned 20 to become a professional skateboarder. Now in his 30s, he's back home in Pittsburgh managing his own line of designer shirts and freelancing as a commercial artist.

About half way back into the voluminous SPACE, you will no doubt notice what appears to be a young man on all fours, in the process of throwing up.

Titled "Untitled: Self-Portrait # 223 (Puke Loop)," it's by Matt Barton and is realistic enough to be jarring, to say the least. Only upon closer inspection will you realize it's a life-size photographic print of the artist with motorized vomit spewing from his mouth. It brings to mind those life-size cutouts of the president, which many have stood next to for a cheesy photograph.

There is a lot of appropriation, a lot of pop culture and a lot of humor in the exhibit (Chris Beauregard injects himself into the highly dramatic scenes of Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" to hilarious effect), but there's also a lot of grunge/heavy-metal influence.

David Wightman's "Don't Cry Remix" installation, with its two 20-f00t-long flannel shirts hung on a wall, has an audio component that sustains the final seconds of the original Guns N' Roses song, the moment in which Axl Rose sings an unnaturally long note.

As Wightman writes in his statement, "This moment in the G N' R version is fantastical and extravagant. However in my remix, the lengthening of this moment creates a new listening space that simultaneously emphasizes the ridiculous and spiritual (there is even low, monk-like throat singing doubled in the recording!) nature of this moment."

Pop art has come a long way since Andy Warhol's death, and this show proves it. It's enough to make the fake silver hair on Warhol's wig stand tall.

Additional Information:

'Smoke and Mirrors'

When: Through Sept. 24. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays -Thursdays, 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Admission: Free

Where: SPACE , 812 Liberty Ave, Downtown

Details: 412-325-7723

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