An experimental lab for site-specific installation, video, and performance art as well as a museum, the Mattress Factory is open to diverse ideas, welcoming innovative projects by both established and lesser-known artists. Since its founding in 1977 by the late Barbara Luderowski (who was also an artist), it has had many successes, and a few disappointments. The current group of installations at the 1414 Monterey Annex (all on view through December 30, 2023) falls into the latter category. Visiting curator Denise Markonish (Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions at MASS MoCA) selected three artists from the 2021 Regional Open Call—Lydia Rosenberg and the team of Phillip Andrew Lewis and Lenka Clayton (all Pittsburgh-based) and also extended an invitation to Katie Bullock of Albion, Michigan, to participate. The only connective thread among the group is perhaps a shared kinship with conceptual art, with idea taking precedence over traditional aesthetic concerns.
Lydia Rosenberg’s Do this while I wait is the most captivating installation, portraying her creative imaginings through an astute use of metaphor, poetry, and storytelling. According to the Mattress Factory, “Rosenberg presents a series of sculptures initially described in her ongoing project of writing a novel-as-sculpture.” Two sparse rooms contain various hybrid objects, including uniquely constructed dustpans, shopping bags, shredded books, brooms, mops, and buckets. These are the fundamental forms for Rosenberg’s fictional character Annette, an artist with a day job, who can only spend eight hours a week in her studio because of work obligations. The fantasy cleaning tools represent a de-cluttering of the mental landscape, keys to the transformation and spiritual energy needed for Annette’s ongoing narrative. Theatrical, chiaroscuro lighting enhances the drama, converting the ordinary into something enchanting.
Entering Katie Bullock’s As Seen From the Surface, viewers are advised to pick up a small plastic magnifier, which is absolutely necessary to read the miniature writings spread out across two rooms. Initially enticing, this premise, with its promise of discovery, soon becomes an exhausting maze of information. Countless small cards covered with tiny pencil notes and truisms, along with drawings, videos, and photographs, cover snow-white walls and translucent panels. Bullock explains that the galleries are meant to function as an archival library and an observatory. She is a reflective artist, looking closely and searching for life’s meaning, and she wants to share her observations, but can visitors really be expected to spend the requisite amount of time needed to absorb everything? I watched people walk around, look at the elegant presentation for a few minutes, and leave. Bullock might consider making a book of her texts and images—something that one could open up and spend hours with in thoughtful immersion.
The Museum Collects Itself, Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis’s collaborative installation, began with an empty gallery. Over the course of the exhibition, all of the Mattress Factory’s trash (except food waste) is being collected to create mounds of discarded materials, with visitors having to negotiate ever-narrowing paths through the debris. Every day, staff collects, catalogues, and displays the garbage. The artists conceived the piece as a way to create a “self-portrait” through “an ever-evolving accumulation” while debunking the concept of museums being pristine white cubes. This notion of using trash as art, and a mirror on society, is not new. For decades, Mierle Laderman Ukeles has focused on trash/maintenance as a subject, challenging conventional stereotypes about maintenance workers and women’s work; she has played a key role in transforming the 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island and raising people’s consciousness about waste. Despite Clayton and Lewis’s concerns about carbon footprints, I doubt if this installation will make much difference.