Pittsburgh artists display works at Warhol

The 98th annual exhibition of work by members of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh at the Warhol Museum concludes Sunday, Sept. 14. School of Art Head John Carson juried the exhibition, which entailed selecting works and turning them into a cohesive show.

Carson decided to jury the exhibition for several reasons. Having only been in Pittsburgh a few years, he wanted to get to know the artists of Pittsburgh, and the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh was the perfect way to do that: The AAP’s 500-plus members represent the best artistic talent in a 150-mile radius of Pittsburgh.

The AAP has been in existence since 1910, and its mission is to “foster a love of the fine arts, and to inculcate a true appreciation of what Pittsburgh artists do for the advancement of art.”

Carson had another reason for jurying in the show: curiosity about what he would find.

Carson’s first duty of selecting the work for the show turned out to be a monumental task. He was taken to an old trolley depot in Homewood, which housed more than 500 pieces of art. “Basically, inside this place was the size of two football fields, and it was just art going on forever, rows and rows of work. It was kind of daunting just to walk in and see that. I kind of took a deep breath and started to look around.”

Carson was surprised by the diversity of the works he found. After jurying a similar show in Belfast, Ireland, he expected the art to be more conservative, to find simple portraits of Mittens the beloved family cat or bowls of fruit. But many of the pieces were anything but that.

“That wasn’t the case. There was some real wacky stuff; some of it was really out there,” Carson said. “Some of it was quite experimental, very sophisticated. It’s obvious a lot of these people had probably had a college art education.”

Carson had fun choosing the works because there wasn’t really a criteria for selecting the works. “Any work that spoke to me or connected with me emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, I was picking that work and setting it aside.”

Carson set aside about 140 works that really struck him. After a visit to the Warhol, though, he realized that, even with extra partition walls, only around 70 works would fit comfortably inside. Carson painfully pared down the works he had already selected.

In arranging and, to an extent, while he was selecting them, Carson tried to create a cohesive exhibition that “didn’t feel like a hodgepodge or a jumble of works, but felt like an interesting, not just a collection, but an arrangement of work that would intrigue and invite you to look into it and start to make connections.

“I’m quite proud of the final exhibition.”

One “strand” of works that emerged was Americana. One work was a collage of sort of flattened vintage soup cans, cookie tins, etc. Some of these Americana works, Carson said, were “critical of the Mom and apple pie. The works start to get edgy because people are kind of damaging sacred icons or using them in a satirical way.”

One such edgy example is an innocent-enough vintage-looking poster with a butterfly on it, but it turns out the poster is an advertisement for Butterfly-brand bombs, which the poster says are “good on the first drop.”

Another strand of works is marked by its abstractness and sophistication.

Overall, the exhibit offers works in a variety of formats from photographs to paintings to sculptures. A lot of the work is bizarre and tiptoes the line between madness and brilliance.

Many of the works are idiosyncratic and don’t fit into any category, but Carson couldn’t not select them for the exhibit.

“Every now and then, there is a work and it’s just coming from an uncontrollable creative impulse,” he said. “Somebody’s just got to make this stuff. And that work’s kind of interesting to see because it has no concern for fashion, no concern for fame or visibility, no concern for what might be considered avant-garde or not avant-garde.”

Naturally, Pittsburgh is the subject for some of the exhibiting artists who call the city their home. For anyone who’s ridden on a bus heading downtown or driven on 376, they’ll recognize the surreal images of Pittsburgh in one pair of paintings.

Carson made many connections with artists through jurying the exhibition. The artists involved appreciated Carson’s criticism, and sent him information on their other work. Carson visited some studios and exhibitions.

“I learned that there’s a really vibrant artist community of people who are in contact with each other. Not a lot of them might have stellar careers as artists, but they’re still producing really good-quality work and showing it.”

One day at the Warhol exhibition, Carson saw the four musicians featured in a painting standing in front of the painting — “It was like the painting had come to life in front of itself.” Carson talked to the musicians, wearing the same clothes as in the painting, and they sent him a CD.

Some of the connections were serendipitous, and like some of the works, were things that Carson could not have predicted encountering.