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Extraterrestrial Earthlings find 'Life'

Contemporary works at the Carnegie museum see dignity in the estranged human condition.

May 07, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

PITTSBURGH -- Have we lost our humanity?

The sober question animates the selection of 40 artists, six from Los Angeles, in "Life on Mars," the 55th installment of the venerable Carnegie International. Every three years or so since 1896, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art has brought an extravagant contemporary art exhibition to town. Usually a survey, it this time takes the form of a theme show.

As the exhibition's website asks: "Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?"

The loose connective tissue among 186 disparate works in "Life on Mars" is the dignity of human beings. Curator Douglas Fogle uses the red planet metaphorically, giving a Space Age twist to general feelings of social estrangement that used to go by the term "alienation."

Emblematic are nine classic Vija Celmins oil paintings of the night sky made between 1988 and 2001, the year of Stanley Kubrick's celebrated Hollywood space odyssey. Mostly black, white and shades of gray, they are modest in size (the largest is 31 by 38 inches), with thousands of tiny clustered spots of soft white glimmering from dark, velvety surfaces. Celmins works from photographs, the basic modern intermediary of human experience, and her exquisitely refined paintings carefully restore a critical element that the camera effaces -- the sense of touch.

That her intergalactic night sky subject matter is also untouchable adds a profound element of wistful loss and yearning to her images of space. Extraordinarily ambitious, the paintings embrace no less a vaunted ancestry than Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night."

Very different is Cao Fei's sentimental 20-minute video projection, "Whose Utopia," set in a Chinese lightbulb factory. The young Beijing-based artist focuses on the soulless drudgery of repetitive labor, injecting social and political reality into the thematic mix. Monotonous work is periodically interrupted by dreamy sequences of a young woman dressed in an angel costume, an older man dancing and a boy playing an electric guitar. At this industrial manufacturer of illumination, the imaginative play of art and music is omnipresent, but only as fantasy.

Different too is the show's incomparable tour de force, a large new installation by Mike Kelley that spectacularly fills the museum's classical Hall of Sculpture. Kelley's trademark -- a wickedly funny, perversely clear-eyed take on adolescent anguish -- here assumes the form of a junior high science fair, perhaps as mentored by Flash Gordon's nemesis, Ming the Merciless, ruler of planet Mongo. Six sleek stage sets paired with video projections hold gigantic glass bell jars on pedestals erected from multicolored plexiglass, Formica and extruded aluminum, aglow in fluorescent light.

The pedestals' designs suggest domestic furniture, putting science in the living room. A galvanized metal washtub, a hand-woven wicker basket, a throw pillow and a crumpled blanket are placed here and there, humble household objects sanctified by art. Machinery, gas tanks and pumps painted cartoon colors, like hot pink, lime green and lemon yellow, are linked by tubing and monitored by gauges. A loud metallic hum rumbles on a soundtrack.

In the videos projected onto surrounding walls, the bell jars are filled with a whirling vortex of colored fluids -- a witty image of youthful raging hormones. The sculptures' glass jars house crystalline models of fantastic cityscapes, phallic eruptions of a man-made world.

Kelley's brilliant "Kandor" sculptures -- a science-fiction name entangled with the truth-telling probity implied by candor -- draw on sources in Minimalism and Pop art, moving his work's earlier forays into Abstract Expressionist tropes forward in time. Demonic machines for modern living, they are worth the trip to Pittsburgh by themselves.

The works by Kelley and Celmins don't fret about humanity's condition, probing instead the amorphous contours of actual human experience. Cao's work does -- perhaps because of her youth (she's 30) and perhaps because of China's Social Realist tradition, which prescribes a more literary depiction of daily life. Together their sculpture, painting and video suggest the broad scope of "Life on Mars."

Of course, any art worth looking at is already an assertion of the cultural values of being human. Doug Aitken's strange and exquisite projected video of migratory wild animals in anonymous motel rooms reawakens our animal intelligence. Mark Bradford's abraded collages of found street-signs beautifully metamorphose into aerial maps of typical urban landscapes.

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