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'Life on Mars' vs. life in Pittsburgh

| Sunday, May 4, 2008

This past week, not only were 40 artists from 17 countries in town for "Life on Mars," the 2008 Carnegie International in which they were exhibiting their art, but so too were many of their dealers and other art world VIPs including Francesco Bonami, curator of the 50th Venice Biennale; Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art; even Swiss Ambassador Christophe Bubb.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere, directors and curators from esteemed institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford -- the list goes on and on -- could be seen buzzing around the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Though the economic, and cultural, impact on the region will not be determined until the end of the its nine-month run, the museum projects this year's installment will bring in about 250,000 visitors, many from out of town, even from out of the country.

"We have people from all over coming to see the exhibition," says Carnegie Museum of Art's Tey Stiteler, pointing out that, already, several patron groups associated with museums around the continent, ranging from the Berkeley Art Museum in Berkeley, Calif., to the New Museum in New York City -- even the Art Gallery of Ontario -- are signed up to come in for tours of the exhibition.

Total attendance of the 2004-05 Carnegie International, the last in the series, topped nearly 150,000. Approximately 240 groups alone, comprising nearly 9,500 individuals, visited the exhibit.

And, the museum itself acquired a dozen works of art that were featured in the 2004-05 Carnegie International for its permanent collection, as well as additional works not on display, but created by more than a dozen of the artists who were included.

That is the mission of the exhibition after all, to acquire works of the "Old Masters of tomorrow." Never mind that many of the artists in the 2004-05 Carnegie International left many critics on both coasts scratching their heads as to who they were.

Which begs the question, why aren't there ever any Pittsburgh artists in this exhibition?

A cursory glance of art historian Vicky Clark's historical overview "International Encounters" (published by Carnegie Museum of Art, June 1996) reveals that, while the work of a few Pittsburgh artists appeared in earlier years, Samuel Rosenberg (1896-1972) was the last to be invited. That was in 1952; ironically, that year, the show was dubbed the "Pittsburgh International."

So, what does it all mean for local artists• Is there any hope that their works could one day be on display in a Carnegie International exhibition?

"I would like to think so," says Sandy Kessler Kaminski, 38, a painter from Gibsonia. "But I'll have to have my work become famous in another city in order to be chosen,"

Kaminski says she has attended every International for as long as she can remember. "I make an effort to see the International because it is thought provoking." And, while she says it doesn't influence the way she makes her own art, "it does raise the level of awareness of how art functions and is perceived in other places."

Because her work primarily leans toward painting, Kaminski says she pays particular attention to the paintings on display, as well as other two-dimensional works. And, though she says in some instances she has become a fan of a few artists, like Lee Bontecou featured in the last International, of others she says "they have stuck with me because I hated them or I thought they failed." She cites Ann Hamilton's "Weeping Wall" in the Carnegie International Exhibition of 2000-01.

"Great idea, the wall worked perfectly," but she says, "I remember trouble with the wet floor. ... So, did the work fail because of the space or an uptight museum afraid of being sued• Or did it succeed because tiny drops made the big floor wet?"

Carin Mincemoyer, 36, an installation artist who lives and works in the South Side, believes it is important for local artists to see the International, even though it represents an art world far removed from Pittsburgh. "Often, it can be too easy to just focus on what's going on locally, and visiting this show is an easy step toward staying aware of what is going on in the international art world. If you like a lot of what you see, or if you don't, it's a chance to experience what a handful of international artists are doing and to understand how your work may or may not relate to it."

"Sometimes, I find things in the Internationals that are inspirational; sometimes, I find things that are disappointing, sometimes, challenging or surprising," Mincemoyer says. "Usually, I find all of these things in a single show. Even if you are disappointed in a show overall, with a show of this size, there is bound to be at least one work in it that tickles your brain to some extent."

Mincemoyer, whose work has been featured at the Mattress Factory on the North Side and in a few of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's galleries Downtown, says she still thinks there is hope for Pittsburgh artists as well as herself being represented in this all-important exhibition.

"Sure, it's possible that my work could be in the International," Mincemoyer says. "I think every artist should respect their work enough to expect others to respect it, and not be surprised when people do."

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