On ViewWestmoreland County Highways
October 16 – November 15, 2020
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, a relatively small institution, is about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh. It has a good regional collection and also organizes some excellent exhibitions, including this show on Westmoreland County highways which presents original artworks on commercial billboards set alongside advertisements for auto repairs, gun shops, and fast food, and of course many election posters (There’s a map of the locations on the museum website). 10 artists present the theme “Make Our Differences Our Strengths” using 14 billboards, with six more locations to go up on December 28. Seeing the exhibition requires a long afternoon of driving on suburban roads, with the aid of GPS. And even then, I confess, I didn’t find every work in this treasure hunt.
Fran Flaherty’s love (2020) depicts four hands spelling out “love” using American Sign Language. And Embracing Collective Cultures (2020), made by Tina Williams Brewer, shows a quilt background, with the label “yoke of love.” According to the artist, the central arc alludes to a lecture by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This work illustrates quilting as a way of gathering diverse cultures together. High enough physically to make defacing difficult, some of these billboards are juxtaposed with banal, everyday images. Thus, Susanne Slavick’s Full Spectrum (2020), which shows nine dancers moving around a color wheel, is installed next to a sign for a local church, “Christ Our Hope. Calvary Chapel Live 10:30 A.M.,” and above a small “Bernie 2020” stencil, with a backwards swastika added to his forehead. And immediately to the right of Amun Ray’s Equity, Culture, Love (2020), which uses a portion of a jigsaw puzzle to suggest the power of making connections, is a sandwich shop advertisement. The placement of the billboards was sometimes not ideal, for it was hard to find a place to park and look at leisure. And, even worse, also, There are Black People in the Future (2020) by Alisha Wormsley was devilishly hard to view because it is facing against the flow of traffic on the far side of a busy, fast, divided highway. This work shows black-and-white photographs that look as if they were displayed on old TV sets, perhaps suggesting that future Black people will value their past.
The success of artworks sometimes depends upon their context. A magnificent sculpture might not make a convincing monument and a great painting probably would not work on a billboard. Setting a large photograph replica of The Night Watch or Guernica alongside a road would be a mistake, for those paintings demand close, prolonged attention. Successful commercial billboards, conversely, need to be readable at a glance. You don’t usually stop to carefully scrutinize an advertisement for fast food. In Pittsburgh, going beyond merely presenting a selection of original art in the galleries, the 1991 Carnegie International displays extended into the natural history museum, next door to the library at the Carnegie, and indeed out into the city at large. As Mark Francis, co-curator with Lynne Cooke, wrote in the catalogue: “The specificity of the museum has created possibilities and opportunities, and the reality of the museum, rather than a notion of the ideal or imaginary museum, has been our guiding principle.”1 Like that show, this visionary exhibition takes up and develops that theme, showing how a museum can productively extend its reach beyond the gallery walls.
For as long as I’ve been an art critic, our political artists have generally preached to the choir. Nothing wrong with that, but right now, especially at this election time, the greater challenge is to reach out to a larger audience who may not frequent museums. Unlike urban street art, which often is determinedly aggressive, there was no in-your-face art here. These all were gentle, determinedly friendly images. Ginger Brooks Takahashi’s An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail! (2020) celebrates LGBTQ rights by showing a rainbow-colored array of raised arms and a megaphone. And Blind is More (2020) by Edith Abeyta portrays five blind or visually handicapped people in different positions with various assistive equipment.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon with lots of cars out, we were the only people deliberately looking at any of the works in this show. Judged purely as political artworks, the obvious problem with these billboards is that generally the presentation of their message was elliptical. If you didn’t have the web site in hand, understanding Alejandro Fiez’s A cat reminded me You are Me (2020), in which a girl and an older woman use a teeter-totter to rescue a cat in a tree, thus showing the power of diversity, would not be easy. To understand, indeed, even to locate these political messages took conscious looking amidst the suburban sprawl. And so, once you located the artworks, you had to stop to look closely. This admirable exhibition, with all of the self-evident problems, thus is more challenging than most upscale gallery shows. In Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (2018), Joachim Pissarro and I discussed art outside the museum. Diversity Billboard Art Project is one of a number of contemporary such recent exhibitions that offers a marvelous illustration of our thesis. Making our differences into strengths is too important an issue to be presented only in art confined within the museum.
My earlier review: "Carnegie International," Arts (February 1992): 69. The catalogue: Lynne Cooke and Mark Francis, Carnegie International 1991 (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum, 1991), vol. 1, 19.