Chatham College faculty member Michael Pestel, shown in the exhibition
"Brasilia" in the Chatham Gallery, will perform with The Villa-Lobos
Octet during a closing reception at the gallery tonight. Pestel, who has
taught at Chatham for 16 years, is leaving Pittsburgh next month.
of eight paintings by West Virginia University faculty
member Paul Krainak in the exhibition "Brasilia: Constructing Oscar
Niemeyer and Heitor Villa-Lobos" at Chatham College.
Click photo for larger image.
Review: Utopian visions
Music and art,
in past and present, inspire modern 'Brasilia' exhibition
Saturday, April 23, 2005
By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Picture a man in a dark suit seated before a baby grand piano and immersed
in playing it. Now, place that scenario on a raft gently floating down
Such was the surreal vision that unsuspecting onlookers happened upon
in Pittsburgh on April 1. The performer was Michael Pestel, and the video
of that performance is part of his collaborative exhibition with Paul
Krainak at Chatham College titled "Brasilia: Constructing Oscar Niemeyer
and Heitor Villa-Lobos."
Pestel, an artist and musician who is chair of the studio arts program
at Chatham, is leaving Pittsburgh next month, but not before giving the
city a big loving parting present in the form of a spectacular concert
at the Chatham College Gallery tonight, and four performances at the National
Aviary, North Side, this weekend.
Pestel is internationally recognized for improvisational performances
that incorporate ambient natural sounds and employ experimental and/or
altered musical instruments that he has designed.
At the Aviary, for example, he'll play with philosopher/musician David
Rothenberg in the Free Flight spaces, giving the feathered residents an
opportunity to jam.
The performance "Brasilia" will be given by The Villa-Lobos
Octet with electronics and voice (as a flute octet) by Pestel, as part
of the exhibition's 6-8 p.m. closing reception tonight at the gallery.
The octet comprises Susana Amundarain (narrative), tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE
(sampler), Daryle Fleming (guitar), Eden McNutt (voice), Ben Opie (alto
sax and clarinet), Steve Pellegrino (accordion), Caterina de Re (voice),
and David Rothenberg (clarinet and bass clarinet) with Pestel (flutes,
It's evident that the 54-year-old artist is not bogged in mainstream convention,
so it isn't so much a puzzle as a substantiation when he says that, after
16 years here, he's leaving Pittsburgh for "a philosopher, a frog
pond and a chicken coop." His new life includes a fine arts faculty
position at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
The impetus for the exhibition at hand was a conversation with Krainak,
who suggested doing a show about Villa-Lobos and the "conflation
of folk idioms with the whole machinery of the modernist orchestra."
Pestel proposed adding Niemeyer and writing a story about their relationship.
The resultant exhibition is an examination of modernism told through two
passionate talents (Villa-Lobos and Niemeyer) fused within the crucible
of a utopian dream (though also consider the metaphor extended to Pestel
and Krainak working within and struggling with the modernist tradition).
Composer Villa-Lobos, 1887-1959, is often credited with placing Brazil
on the world music map with his at-times haunting compositions that incorporate
folk traditions. Architect Niemeyer, born in 1907 and still professionally
active, has been celebrated as the architect of Brasilia. The Brazilian
capital, built in the middle of the last century, was deemed an urban
utopia. Since then Brasilia has tarnished and the role of such modernist
giants has, in hindsight, shifted from visionary to complicity.
The exhibition addresses "both the glory of modernism and the pitfalls
of modernism, which seem to become more and more considerable," Pestel
says. "The more we begin to investigate the conditions in which certain
utopian ideas arose, the more we have to problematize this history. This
is not finger-pointing," he adds. "This is not blaming, but
exposing the complexity of the issues."
Unifying these elements is an eight-part engaging, mind-tweaking text
that describes an encounter between Villa-Lobos and Niemeyer. Is it truth
"That's a kind of leading question," Pestel answers, "that
doesn't have a yes or no answer." Making comparison to the way museums
present history or the way a historical text is written, he says that
"it is a construction, and constructions are both true and false.
But, more simply, some of it is fictional and some of it is fact."
He'd presumed that two such notable figures would have met, but admits
that his research turned up no evidence that they ever did.
In the gallery, the 12-minute river video -- which references a dream
Villa-Lobos had -- plays upon the piano beyond a circle of eight chairs,
the number of notes on a musical scale. A ladder with eight rungs leads
to a sky-lit space that bathes the viewer in white light, neutralizing
most senses while heightening the aural reception of the text read aloud.
On the walls, eight paintings by Krainak, a professor of painting at West
Virginia University, are meticulous and architectonic while simultaneously
conducting equatorial heat. They represent paintings Niemeyer made of
his designs for a never-realized house that Villa-Lobos requested and
that were sealed with him in his coffin. A composition by Villa-Lobos,
written for the dedication of Brasilia but which he instead destroyed,
coincidently has the same title as the work to be performed tonight, "The
Fact? Fiction? It no longer seems to matter.
The whole is compelling. But the performance/video -- which was filmed
by artist Andrew Johnson and Chatham student Hongla Phan with assistance
from philosopher/artist Bob Johnson and edited by Pestel -- has taken
on a life of its own.
If the exhibition is a modernist critique, and an aesthetic self-examination
by Pestel and Krainak, the video is a redemptive moment.
The improbability of the artist and his 600-pound baby grand in free flow
infuses the image with Magic Realism, a form Latin Americans are conversant
with. It's evident that in it, Pestel has escaped the constraints of the
ordinary and plays from a sanctified realm. "It was so beautiful,"
he says, "I was in an absolute trance."
Purified by water, chastened by flame, the artist's experience -- and
by extension the viewer's -- supersedes the restrictions, mental and physical,
Pestel plans to perform similarly again in Pittsburgh and perhaps on the
Hudson River. Particularly appropriate would be the latter locale, home
to the 19th-century Hudson River School painters who sought the sublime
in the unspoiled landscape of the young American nation. Pestel has revitalized
the search for transcendence through a medium that ministers to the soul
of troubled 21st century mankind.
Performances at the Aviary, which celebrates Earth Day this weekend, are
at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. today and 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. tomorrow (admission).
The exhibition "Brasilia" will be open for a last time from
11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday at the Chatham College Gallery, Woodland Road.
Admission is free. For information, call 412-365-1232.
(Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org