Karina Smigla-Bobinski, ADA, Mattress Factory
Karina Smigla-Bobinski, ADA, 2018. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: Tom Little

“Artists In Residence”

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Mattress Factory

The Mattress Factory, an experimental lab for site-specific artists, is internationally respected as one of the best venues for installation art in the U.S. Its current “Artists in Residence” exhibition (on view through August 8) testifies to that reputation. Occupying both the main building and the 1414 Annex, this stimulating display features room-size installations with advanced technology, interactivity, permeating sound, and a sense of mystery.

Relationships across body, space, and time unite these new works by William Earl Kofmehl III, Laleh Mehran, OSGEMEOS (Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo), Karina Smigla-Bobinski, and Christina A. West. In Lyrical, OSGEMEOS, esteemed for their graffiti murals, transport viewers into a vision of São Paulo’s complex street life that plays out across four rooms filled with bright colors, surreal statuary, light displays, and bizarre pageantry. A green wall is covered with the artists’ figurative constructions and paintings, as well as folk art from their personal collection. A neighboring wall supports a colorful, street-art-inspired mural. The floor, painted with warm-toned ripples, becomes a stage for protruding, glowing heads. These strange, radiant sculptures unite the setting. If you wait, you can peer into a light-filled theatrical cavern—but patience is required, it is illuminated for only two minutes every hour.

The Interstitium, by Denver-based, multimedia artist Laleh Mehran, also requires time, first to adjust to the darkness of the chamber and second to absorb the subtlety of the experience. Mehran’s poignant, interactive installation is activated by the collective body movements of viewers. She explains that the idea originated with the ancient Persian word for “glimmer of light”: “The Boroosh are interconnected, and when they sense your presence, they yearn to make connections with you.” The small, pulsating lights appear and disappear against blackened coal slag walls as movement increases and decreases. The forms holding the lights evoke eerie skulls with enlarged white teeth. At the far end of the space, a horizontal screen illustrates an ambiguous, ever-changing digital wave of undulating energy. The Interstitium is altogether haunting.

Karina Smigla-Bobinski’s ADA, in the 1414 building, is an analog installation named after the mathematician and early computer scientist Ada Lovelace. An immense, transparent helium ball, its surface dotted with charcoal spikes, floats in the white space. This “post-digital drawing machine,” as the Munich-based artist describes her kinetic sculpture, beckons viewers to push it and contribute to its mission of covering the walls, ceiling, and floors with random marks. The result is an evolving, complex drawing produced by the cooperation of many hands.

William Earl Kofmehl III, from Pittsburgh, is known for eccentric, multidisciplinary works that frequently examine the intersections of fact, fiction, and history. He has gone cerebral, however, with Lessons, which contains a modern glass-door shower stall and a viewing room displaying bones and a silver dinosaur skeleton. Each area serves as a platform for weekly performances; without the actors to activate the stages though, the installation becomes mute and lackluster.

Screen, by Atlanta-based Christina A. West, consists of a series of scale-shifted, luminously painted green and pink rooms, punctuated by recurrent doorways, windows, and mirrors. Half-size naked figures populate the spaces, adding another layer of surprise to accent the theatrical setting. In addition to altering the perception of scale, West also toys with the physical perception of time through the use of deferred-time video recordings. Cameras document viewer movements, then screen them several seconds later in the windows. Unknowingly, you become both observer and subject in this enigmatic setting, integrated into the installation for others to see and given an occasion for self-examination.

“Artists in Residence” is a must-see exhibition, particularly if one is more interested in invigorating contemporary art than self-gratifying, curatorial pontification. Unlike so many shows today, this one is not weighted down by an ideological agenda; instead, it invites us to delve open-mindedly into the artists’ creative thinking and to touch, move, and experience the uncanny.