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Art & Museums

Associated Artists' exhibit is worth trip to Youngstown area

| Saturday, June 27, 2015, 6:29 p.m.
“Harris Theater” oil on canvas by Alan Byrne
“Harris Theater” oil on canvas by Alan Byrne
“The Nativity” photographic collage by Christopher Ruane
“The Nativity” photographic collage by Christopher Ruane
“Window At Night” oil on canvas by David Stanger
“Window At Night” oil on canvas by David Stanger
“Sorrows” plastic and carved cement by Patti Menick
“Sorrows” plastic and carved cement by Patti Menick
“Study For Second Line” mixed media on Yupo paper by Shelle Barron
“Study For Second Line” mixed media on Yupo paper by Shelle Barron

Every year, the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh search for a dramatic location to house their annual exhibition, and this year they have found one in grand style.

The Butler Institute of American Art's Trumbull Branch, in Howland Township, Ohio, just north of Youngstown, is a breathtaking venue in the modernist tradition, even though the airy open design was completed in 1996.

Since then, it has become even more magnificent, thanks to the Butler having acquired the Pierre Soulages (French, born 1919) mural titled “14 May, 1968,” a 14-by-20-foot, site-specific, tile mural that for 40 years graced the entrance of the One Oliver Plaza building (now known as the K&L Gates Center) in Downtown Pittsburgh. It was moved to the Butler satellite location five years ago, and has been properly cared for, and respectfully admired, ever since.

The Soulages mural serves as the perfect backdrop to more than 60 wonderful works by members of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, if only for a short time. Both the mural and the exhibit make for all the more reason locals should take the short drive to see both.

Juried by the Butler's executive director, Louis Zona, the “Associated Artists of Pittsburgh 104th Annual Exhibition” is a strong show, holding its own among previous iterations in recent years.

This exhibit is always filled with great paintings, and this one is no exception. Large, bold abstractions by Scott Hunter and Mia Tarducci Henry great the visitor in a grand gesture befitting the space. While more refined works like Alan Byrne's “Harris Theater” and David Stanger's “Susheela” and “Window at Night” offer a more contemplative experience.

Also painted in a highly realistic style, Stanger's works are representative of his recent efforts to depict his son and wife. Both works are meditations on stillness and were made through processes of observational painting, says the Squirrel Hill-based painter, who teaches drawing and painting at Seton Hill University.

“The gradual nature of painting in this way can be an antidote to the speed of our modern lives,” he says. “It helps me collect my thoughts and see more clearly.”

Stanger's paintings often take a long time to created because, he says, “I'm after a charged interplay of paint surface and image.”

“Window at Night” took him two years to make and is, in a way, a chronicle of the physical growth of his son, who was 3 when Stanger started the painting and is now 5.

Looking at it, with its multiple interior reflections captured so perfectly well, one could get lost in the layers, both real and metaphorical. “There's quite a bit of visual information under the final layers of paint including alternate depictions of our son as he grew,” Stanger says.

Painted in hyper-realistic style, Byrne's “Harris Theater” painting is a technical marvel all its own, based on his own photograph of the theater's marquee. “While it is done in oil, I work from a template I create in Adobe Illustrator,” explains the Bellevue-based artist, who teaches graphics and studio art at the Community College of Allegheny County. “This gives me what I consider to be a unique look and approach to painting.”

The Harris Theater is one of Byrne's favorite subjects to paint and he has created several versions of it in a variety of mediums. One, in fact, is on display at the Pittsburgh mayor's office.

Among the few photographic works on display, “The Nativity” by Christopher Ruane of Murrysville is a real standout.

A contemporary take on a biblical theme, it features an inner-city version of the classic Christmas story, complete with a representation of each of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Ruane says creating a Nativity scene like this was “inevitable.”

“After four years of building it, I finally found the right balance,” he says. “A piece that stays true to scripture and amplifies the meaning of the story for a modern audience.

“It really is an intense piece when you study it. For example, I wanted the Blessed Mother to be seen as a person,” Ruane says. “Looking at the expression on her face, her body language and her placement in the scene, in my opinion she says it all.”

“Study for Second Line” by Shelle Barron of Erie, who has been teaching art at Edinboro University for more than 20 years, is a real showstopper in the mixed-media category.

A semi-abstract compilation, it represents memory and loss, says the artist, and “how our attempts to memorialize and create a permanent setting for the our transitory experience (and that of our loved ones) is folly at best.”

In it, elegant banners represent empty messages. Representing, says Barron, “How we frame the importance of our lives to avoid peering over the abyss.”

“In truth, in my work, I often try to relate a personal experience to a larger framework. Mostly, so I can better understand it myself,” she says. “The idea of the ‘second line' tradition in New Orleans (the procession that follows a funeral procession) fascinates me. Is the second line intended to solidify the grief? Transform or transcend the grief? Or to forget?”

Finally, among the few sculptures on display, “Sorrows” by Patti Menick of Murrysville appears perfectly placed in front of the Soulages mural.

Featuring small faces made from carved cement, set in plastic display boxes set one atop another, the piece represents secret sorrows we all keep from time to time, and some for a lifetime.

“I find most people keep their sorrows a secret, but the fact that you have had them proves you have truly lived,” Menick says. “So, I decided to accumulate them, like possessions, hoping at the end all the joys will stack as tall.”

The remaining works are just as compelling, making for a thoroughly enjoyable excursion, well worth taking.

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

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