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Wood Street Galleries' installation exhibit examines 'poetic' relationships

| Thursday, July 19, 2007

It's no coincidence that the first piece visitors will come to in Michael Hardesty's latest solo exhibition at Wood Street Galleries, Downtown, features the word "ECHO" spelled out in neon and reflected below in a trough of used motor oil.

While that may seem like an overstatement of the obvious (it is, after all the title of the exhibition), consider this -- the word echo, both in neon and reflection, reads from left to right in unison. In other words, there is no obvious flip to a letter, as one would expect.

It's a play on words, both literally and figuratively, that refers to a theme that has run through the artist's entire oeuvre for decades -- duality.

As Hardesty tells it, many years ago while walking home to his East Village loft in New York City, he was taken by a serendipitous moment that, to this day, has had a profound impact on him.

"A pigeon was sitting atop a traffic light. And the precise instant that the light turned green, the bird took flight," Hardesty says. "It was merely coincidence, of course, but it seemed so cause-and-effect. This tiny incident was a catalyst to a deeply profound idea. It defined perfectly what my thinking was about, had been about for years. That is, the interconnectedness of all things, even completely disjointed things; 'poetic' relationships of parts to a whole, in short, duality."

Now in his mid-50s and living in the rural expanse of northeast Pennsylvania, just outside of the town of Honesdale, Wayne County, Hardesty still makes compelling installation-type works that deal with duality.

Three of the four works that comprise the exhibition are recent. But one, "Offering," is from 1988. A plaster cast of a hand, embedded with a speaker from which one can hear the artist whispering the word "listen," is arranged in mid-air, approximately 20 feet opposite a large dark purple disk onto which a red laser is projected. The laser takes the form of an ellipse that slowly turns. Being rather high-tech for its time, it's a haunting piece of installation art that still resonates today.

"One of the reasons I included this piece was because it was one of the very first uses of a laser in an artwork," says Wood Street Galleries director and curator Murray Horne.

Horne has known Hardesty nearly as many years as that piece is old, having first shown his installation work in this very same space in 1991 in an exhibition for the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Nearly all of Hardesty's environments investigate the mysteries of perception, challenging our sense of our physical selves. The technological aspects of his work dissolve into sensual cues which elicit questions of where, what, why and how, sometimes inducing a meditative reverie. In response to his work, we shift from the material to the metaphysical.

For example, opposite "Offering," which takes up one half of the second-floor gallery, is the piece "Was/Is" (2005). Comprised of a massive fiberglass ball, some 14 feet in diameter, it is arranged in the middle of its allotted space. On the floor is a metronome, timed at one click per second, and on the wall, a burning candle.

Projected onto this large fiberglass orb is a dot pattern that moves in an animated fashion that gives the perception of a slight turn of this large, globe-like object on its axis. An obvious reference to the earth, as if seen from above, it also speaks of time and relevance -- relevance to the earth, relevance to history, relevance to space, and relevance to ourselves.

Upstairs on the gallery's third-floor Hardesty's most recent work makes a similar point. Commissioned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, it is entitled "Feedback," and for good reason. In it, the viewer is submerged in his or her image, thanks to two video cameras embedded in the walls opposite one another.

In a way, it's like the ultimate dressing mirror in which you can see the front of yourself and the back of yourself into infinity. Here again, the artist is working with the notion of duality. Not just in literal terms, but in terms of how we see ourselves in contrast to how others see us at the same time.

In this piece, just as in all of the others on display, one senses a certain power, an internal tension that has the capacity to provoke, beyond cultural habits, a genuine mental and existential experience.

This brings us back to that first piece, "ECHO." The word and its reflection clearly indicate a semantic desire for reduction, silence, subtraction and abstention. But it also make us think of a sort of operation of the ego that the artist would like to stimulate in the viewer. That is a kind of meditation on one's own simple existence.

Additional Information:

'Michael Hardesty: Echo'

When: Through Sept. 15: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Admission: Free

Where: Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St. (above the Wood Street 'T' Station), Downtown

Details: 412-471-5605 or www.woodstreetgalleries.org

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