Art review: 'Sideways Museum' at Space
According to a recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau, only 21 percent of adults visited an art museum or gallery in 2012.
So, it's no wonder artists like Tom Sarver are taking their art to the streets, which is what he has done with “Sideways Museum,” on display 24 hours a day in the window of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Space gallery, Downtown.
With Sarver's “visionary art museum,” there's no need to set foot inside the gallery to see it. Just look in the window, and you will see dozens of pieces by a cadre of local artists inspired by local traditions and daily life.
“There is a richness and honesty in work created by artists who are compelled to react to their place and time, without pretension or desire to reference trends of the art world,” Sarver says.
This, says the Stowe-based artist, begs the question: “Why does museum art in Pittsburgh need to look like museum art in New York or Los Angeles?”
“The ‘Sideways Museum' offers an alternative,” he says. “To be a successful artist today, you have to be an entrepreneur just as much or more than being a creator. What about the people who just make interesting stuff? Perhaps the really authentic work is falling through the cracks.”
Sarver says he conceived the project as a window installation, but he hopes to grow it into a larger space or traveling show.
“I've also been thinking of taking the project to empty storefronts or underutilized public spaces throughout the region,” he says. “Ultimately, I'd like to include more artists and to present the work in a way that allows people to get up close and see the craft involved.”
The collection in this iteration is a surprisingly rich mix considering the small space in which it's contained. There are 35 works in all, by seven artists, including Sarver.
It includes gems by the late Dorothy Williams (1926-2005), who created a series of string paintings in her retirement years that captured the memories of her life, such as “My Walking Stick,” made of embroidery floss on cardboard. In this string painting, Williams depicts her son helping her to church.
Created by gluing strands of colored embroidery floss, one string at a time, to a cardboard backing, works like this document her life and culture growing up and living in the Hill District.
“I met Ms. Williams in 2002, visiting her and her daughter Franki to hear the stories of her life and work,” Sarver says. “I organized a couple showings of her string paintings before her passing. I continue to promote her work, hoping that it ends up in an important collection.”
Joann Kielar was one of the first artists Sarver met in 1997, after he returned to Pittsburgh from attending art school at Tyler School of Art at Temple University. A storyteller, teacher and puppeteer, Kielar has been involved in many of the same puppet projects that Sarver has worked on over the years. Sarver includes one of Kielar's works in the show with an assortment of puppets that she uses in performances.
In 2000, Sarver met Steve Smith on South Craig Street in Oakland.
“Steve draws incessantly, filling sketchbook after sketchbook with his reactions to world events,” Sarver says. “These sketches become the inspiration for abstract paintings with bold colors and gestures.”
Smith has amassed quite a collection of works dating to the 1980s, an assortment of which are included in the installation.
Sarver also met Doug Hill in Oakland years ago. Hill makes intricate gadgets and gears out of cardboard, such as a wind-up clock in this display made of cardboard, glue and string. It has an escapement and ratchet system, allowing one to wind it up for a run time of about 10 seconds.
Like the other artists, Jim Rettinger has been making assemblage sculpture and ceramic works for years.
“Mr. Rettinger was my high-school art teacher,” Sarver says. “His arrangements of regionally appropriate materials (rusty metal, old farm tools and weathered wood) are crafted playfully with humor and metaphor.”
Another associate of Sarver's whose work is included in “Sideways” is Liz Hammond, whom Sarver met in 1999 when the two worked on the first Black Sheep Puppet Festival. Over the past few years, Hammond has been working on a series of fiber sculptures called “Simple Cells.” This is the first time they have been shown. Suspended from the ceiling by a single point, the works rotate slowly with the changing air currents.
“The pieces are elegant in their symmetry and craft,” Sarver says.
An amazing artist and puppeteer in his own right, Sarver threw in some of his works to round out the display. These include a hand-built chess set, which he calls a “recent experiment in clay,” and a text-based work, a sign that reads “We All Eat Our Share of Dirt.”
Sarver says he is interested in the design and aesthetic of the project, with his specific choices for wall color, design of the logo and arrangement of the works being most evident.
But, he says, “I'd rather not call the arrangement an art piece in itself.”
Oh, but it is. And a lovely one at that.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.