Michael Pestel and Paul Krainak •  Brasilia (2006)



Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette

Artist and 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.

One 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.


Art 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 a river.
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, prepared piano).
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 or fiction?
"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 Brasilia Concert."
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, of normalcy.
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 or 412-263-1925.)