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Art & Museums

Art review: 'Maximum Minimum in Unum' at Carnegie Mellon University

| Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Carrie Schneider, 'Recession,' 2010
Carrie Schneider
Carrie Schneider, 'Recession,' 2010
Felipe Castelblanco, 'White Noise,' from the series 'The Wrong Place,' 2014
Felipe Castelblanco
Felipe Castelblanco, 'White Noise,' from the series 'The Wrong Place,' 2014
Jina Valentine, 'Testimony, Disintegration,' 2015
Jina Valentine
Jina Valentine, 'Testimony, Disintegration,' 2015
Gregory Witt, 'Light Switch,' 2011
Gregory Witt
Gregory Witt, 'Light Switch,' 2011
Laleh Mehran, 'Dominant Policy,' 2013
Laleh Mehran
Laleh Mehran, 'Dominant Policy,' 2013
Peter Coffin, 'Untitled (Ribbons),' 2012
Peter Coffin
Peter Coffin, 'Untitled (Ribbons),' 2012

The exhibit “Maximum Minimum in Unum,” on display at Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery, is an exhibit filled with works of art that have a lot to say in a minimal way.

Organized by art professors Joshua Reiman and Susanne Slavick, the exhibit features the works of 17 artists who are alumni of Carnegie Mellon's School of Art.

Not only do they have that in common, but, Slavick says, each of the artists' works allude to maximalist or minimalist classification.

“Each of these artists' works embrace polarities of some sort, but also subvert those polarities,” Slavick says. “So, one artist might make works that look extremely minimalistic. In another sense, they may be very maximalist in terms of taking on some aspect of complexity.

“Each piece might exist at a different point along that continuum of minimal or maximal, but they have some sense of each in the other.”

To get some sense of either take, consider Gregory Witt's “Light Switch,” which is an over-the-top mechanical manifestation of what it takes to turn on a light switch with a simple flip, an undoubtedly maximalist approach. In contrast, Carrie Schneider's photograph, “Recession,” makes a simple statement about the recession, by way of a shopper slumped against a plate glass window, obviously physically and financially exhausted.

“It was my small response to the economic crisis,” says Schneider, who made the image in 2009.

Also focused on finance, literally in the form of currency, Laleh Mehran's video piece “Dominant Policy,” features a cornucopia of kaleidoscopic designs the artist made out of scans of paper money from around the world.

“When I was young, my family traveled often, and I would always be a bit obsessed by the currency in the different countries. I was fascinated by the different sizes, textures, colors and designs — they seemed magical to me,” Mehran says. “I wanted to make an artwork that was hypnotic and beautiful yet somehow disconnected from the very loaded relationships with politics, power and corruption.”

Another piece by Mehran, “Entropic System,” alludes to systems of government, belief and economy — all structures of order.

Featuring a pendulum attached to a small controller, it draws a geometric design in a bed of coal slag, but only if left alone. Get too close, and a sensor will stop the micro-controller.

The hovering machine is symbolic of the “politicization of ideologies,” the artist says. “I'm interested in how these constructed systems dictate who we are and how we treat each other. In the artwork, the geometric patterns drawn into the sand are disturbed in the presence of people — echoing our relationship to the systems.”

Adding an element of levity, Peter Coffin's piece “Untitled (Ribbons),” which is basically an aluminum rack filled with dozens of spools of colorful ribbons, entices visitors to touch it. Coffin says the piece is about “potential energy.”

“You can't help but imagine yourself pulling at the various colors of ribbon,” he says. “And when you find yourself standing there to look at this piece, you've already engaged with it by imagining all that potential energy and the energy of those colors vibrating in front of you. It's a simple invitation to imagine and experience that potential energy that now belongs to you.”

Conversely, Jina Valentine's “Testimony, Disintegration” takes on a much more somber topic. Basically newspaper stories of urban murders printed in disintegrating ink, it was born out of the artist's “inability to process the seemingly daily published news articles reporting the deaths of young, unarmed black men at the hands of police,” she says. “I imagined this information was so toxic, incendiary, heavy that the ink it was printed in would eat through the paper ... which is what happens in this piece.”

In addition to the works on display on the second and third floors of the gallery, every two weeks since the show opened Jan. 22, there have been rotating installations featured on the first floor.

Previously, the space included a body lotion and spa-inspired installation (Jan. 23-31) by the Institute for New Feeling (Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt, Nina Sarnelle) and two patriotically inspired pieces by Felipe Castelblanco (Feb. 2-14). Shana Moulton's video works, “The Undiscovered Drawer” and “Restless Leg Saga,” currently take over the first-floor space and will run through the end of the show.

The first video features Moulton, dressed in a housecoat, navigating the enigmatic and possibly magical properties of her home decor, initiating relationships with objects and consumer products that are at once banal and uncanny. In the other, she appears as a version of Vishnu, but all legs instead of arms in a humorous take on the term “Restless Leg Syndrome.” Both pieces combine an unsettling, wry sense of humor with a low-tech, pop sensibility.

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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