Art review: 'Danny Bracken: Here' at 707 Penn Gallery
Danny Bracken's first solo exhibit in Pittsburgh, “Here,” is all about the present moment.
The small but ambitious exhibit at 707 Penn Gallery, Downtown, features a number of new works created specifically for this show — works that combine video, sound and sculpture.
For example, “Allegheny Center: Over and Over” and “The Lower Hill: Over and Over” are works that feature three illustrations based on maps from the past, present and proposed future designs of two Pittsburgh neighborhoods — Allegheny Center and the lower Hill District — presented as part of a light projection.
Bracken is quick to point out the two locations share similar histories. Once centers of business districts, they fell victim to the urban revitalization schemes of the 1960s.
“Both had a thriving central business area, both went through a period of decline, and for each, there is a plan to make it better,” Bracken says.
The printed images mounted on one wall appear and disappear with projected circles of white light; as the light fades, the image appears, revealing the glowing print.
Both sites' proposed revitalization plans feature much of what existed previously. In this way, both pieces question our ideas of progress, the future and nostalgia for the past.
“Most of the time, we have nostalgia for the past, but that's not the reality,” Bracken says. “The future is what we dream about, but the future never really works out the way we think it will. The title of the show is ‘Here,' so all the work, like this, is about the world around us at the present moment.”
For a man obsessed with the present, Bracken, 31, has an interesting past. After growing up in a small town in Michigan, he completed a visual arts degree in 2005 at Chicago's North Park University. While there, he got involved in Chicago's art and music scenes, subsequently joining the Chicago-based music collective Anathallo. The group toured extensively throughout North America, Europe and Japan with appearances at Lollapalooza, Coachella and other major festivals, resulting in over 500 performances.
Since then, Bracken has composed music for commercials and films, most notably for the documentary “Blood Brother,” which was awarded best U.S. documentary and the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2013.
Although Bracken has had quite the nomadic past, he moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago and calls it home.
“Home Maker I & II,” two wall-mounted video sculptures on display in the rear of the gallery, allude to this. Made from scrap wood and aluminum ductwork, each fashioned into tubes and housing a small video screen, they play what Bracken calls “portraits from everyday life,” such as his wife eating soup at the kitchen table of their North Side home, or Bracken installing a brick patio behind it.
Paired with continuously looping musical clips, the images are nonlinear, endlessly playing the repetitions of human activity in a home.
Bracken says the pieces investigate our desire for a sense of place and belonging. Images of reading a book, eating soup and playing music bring to mind the warmth and pleasures of home, while the chopping of food, brushing of teeth and laying of brick convey the routine and repetition of everyday life.
“The objects become tunnels into a private world, and the small apertures provide for a personal interaction with the viewer,” he says.
Not far away hangs another video-based piece, “Pipe Dream,” that Bracken made last spring, while he was an artist-in-residence at La Fragua, a multidisciplinary artist residency program in Belalcazar, a small town near Cordoba, Spain.
Basically a video Bracken made of a multitude of circular vignettes of clouds reflected on a pond, it is seen through a sculptural interface he created from short sections of copper pipe. Looking through them, each tube corresponds with a circular vignette, which fades in and out. It's a simple, yet ingenious, combination.
“I like it because it made me think of dreams and how they are fleeting,” Bracken says of the title of the piece, which is apropos considering the fleeting cloud scenes that fade in and out from pipe to pipe.
“It's kind of at the core of what my work is about — this kind of merging of the digital and the physical,” Bracken says.
The show culminates with the signature piece “Hear/here,” which is a small circle of mirrors that occupies the floor of the center of the gallery and projects squares of light onto the walls through a video projector mounted to the ceiling.
“Each one of these little panels of mirror is projection mapped,” Bracken says. There are 16 in all, and the light from the projector slowly bounces off of each and onto the walls, fading in intensity.
“There are a lot of interactive artworks like this, where if you move or say something, they are activated,” he says. “This is kind of the opposite. ... If we are quiet, it turns on.”
Although each lit panel projection seems to be fading out, Bracken says that when the sound level reaches a certain decibel in the room, all the lights shut off. “I just wanted to play with the idea of interactive artwork, where you had to do something to get it to respond,” he says. “But instead, I wanted it to respond if you did nothing. That way, you would stop, sit and be quiet and be here.”
And being “here” is what it's all about.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.