PITTSBURGH — I spent two days at the Carnegie International, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and it was hardly enough. The 58th edition of North America’s longest-running international art show is a deluge of art and information that left me with an urgent, unsettled question: Who, or what, are shows like this for?
Titled “Is It Morning for You Yet?” and featuring work by more than 100 artists and collectives, the exhibition is intended, according to its curators, to excavate the meaning of the word “international” by tracing American impact on the world since 1945. And that much it does. A special section called “Refractions,” including documentary photography by Susan Meiselas and Vo An Khanh, and other explicitly political work like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Forbidden Colors,” a rarely seen 1988 painting of the Palestinian flag in separate panels, makes a powerful impression. I knew that the United States had left bloody footprints in Latin America, in Southeast Asia, in Africa — and so on. But I don’t think I’d ever before tried to keep all those separate wars and coups and interventions in mind at the same time.
The curators add further depth to “international” by staging several shows within the show. They invited Hyphen —, a group from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, to mount a mini retrospective of the painter Kustiyah (1935-2012), and the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, which operated in exile during the Pinochet dictatorship but moved back to Santiago in 1991, to organize an entire hall of its own various holdings.
There are smaller add-ins, too, like an entire room of works associated with the Iranian artist and collector Fereydoun Ave, and attractions outside the museum, like an eye-catching new mural, anchored by an inspirational quote from the playwright August Wilson, by James “YaYa” Hough in Pittsburgh’s historically African American Hill District. (Wilson’s line is “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.”) Overall the show’s sheer expanse and variety left me with a dizzy consciousness of my own New York provincialism. The majority of the non-American artists were new to me, and without Hough’s mural to draw me, I probably wouldn’t have seen that particular street, either.
The mythologically tinted sex paintings of another Indonesian, I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih, known as Murni (1966-2006), are strange and vivid, and Sanaa Gateja, working in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, makes gorgeous tapestry-like compositions with colorful paper beads. Made collaboratively with found materials, they offer beauty with a subtext of social engagement, and I was surprised never to have encountered them at a blue-chip art fair.
The Fine Arts & Exhibits Special Section
Most spectacularly, the Turkish artist Banu Cennetoglu filled the Hall of Sculpture with clusters of the kind of letter-shaped gold foil balloons that you might buy to spell out “congratulations” or “happy birthday.” What she spells, instead, is the first 10 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (U.D.H.R.), proclaimed in 1948 at the United Nations General Assembly in Paris. Lining the walls are large framed photographs from Hiromi Tsuchida’s “Hiroshima Trilogy” series, each one documenting a personal item recovered after the dropping of the atomic bomb.
The dingy glamour of Cennetoglu’s balloons, which will gradually deflate over the course of the show, makes for a seriously unnerving contrast with Tsuchida’s elegant, black-and-white images of scorched wristwatches and school uniforms peeled from singed flesh. Together the pieces paint idealistic achievements like the U.D.H.R. as almost grossly inadequate to the world we live in.
Still, these and other highlights are salted in among far too much work that’s more earnest than interesting, and laid out in an unconsidered, one-thing-after-another way. The whole thing amounts to an excellent first draft for an exhibition — a preliminary gathering of ideas and possibilities that could have been extraordinary if only it had been winnowed more severely and arranged more coherently.
On the other hand, maybe a deluge of discomfiting information is exactly what needs to be in museums right now, and what people like me need to see. Walking around the magnificent Carnegie, and then while flying back to New York, the detail I kept returning to was in LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “More Than Conquerors: A Monument for Community Health Workers of Baltimore, Maryland,” which won this year’s Carnegie Prize, first issued to Winslow Homer in 1896.
Using photographs Frazier took and interviews she conducted over several months in 2021, the piece documents people working to connect their underserved neighbors in Baltimore to medical services during the depths of the pandemic. The photos, stately and humane, are mounted side by side with the interviews on a forest of metal intravenous drip stands. The type is tiny, and the stands, which fill the whole of the museum’s ground floor Forum Gallery, are frankly off-putting.
Inside, though, are impressive stories like Latish Walker’s. One of the first community health workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Walker makes a point of taking each new class of medical interns on a walking tour of the low-income housing across the street from the hospital — a place that most of them would otherwise never visit.
58th Carnegie International
Through April 2, 2023, Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, and various other locations, (412) 622-3131; cmoa.org.
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