Carnegie International Curator Sohrab Mohebbi (left) and Pittsburgh artist James "Yaya" Hough at the Hill District mural. Photo courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art.

When the 58th Carnegie International closed on April 2, it left many questions in its wake, most significantly “Was it the last?”

In early 2022 when the Carnegie Museum of Art began releasing information about the exhibition’s Sept. 24 opening, it became evident that this iteration was going to blaze new trails if only by virtue of its curators’ backgrounds.

Iranian-born Sohrab Mohebbi and Japanese-American Ryan Inouye broke the lineage ceiling of European heritage, and their experience with alternative venues suggested implicitly their disinterest in courting global art market favor.

Presumably, they would introduce artists and artworks that had not been previously known or considered.

They did that but unfortunately most of the conversation around this International has been about the intent of the curators not of the artists. CI58 was about art only to the extent that it was illustrative of the show’s ideological critique presented in the exhibition guide as “tracing the geo-political imprint of the United States since 1945.” 

This is a large and potentially provocative frame that could have made for a blockbuster exhibition had the art, the presentation and the curatorial intent, been up to the challenge.

Instead, the Carnegie International comprised a hodgepodge of often inferior expression often poorly installed and often lacking a unifying narrative component.

Installation view of Hiromi Tsuchida’s “Hiroshima Collection.” Photo by Sean Eaton, courtesy of the artist and Carnegie Museum of Art.

There were, however, high points and one wonders how the artists of those works felt being displayed alongside the mediocre.

Highlights included the impeccably executed, emotionally penetrating “Hiroshima Collection” series by Hiromi Tsuchida (born 1939, Japan), each image a quiet yet profound meditation on the unmeasurable loss generated by wanton destruction.

Tishan Hsu (born 1951, Boston) continued his decades-long experimentation with material and with technology as it relates to the human body and mind in outdoor sculptural forms that were simultaneously whimsical yet creepily cautionary.

Both of the artists are septuagenarians but equally compelling is the art of Ali Eyal (born in 1994 in Iraq or, as he prefers The Forest), and of terra0, a German collective that included artists, theorists and designers when it was founded in 2016 at the Berlin University of the Arts.

Eyal was a child when the Iraq war disseminated the elements of his life. “Where Does A Thought Go When It’s Forgotten? And.” paired memories of his pre-war environment painted on manila folders and scattered across museum walls with a large mixed media work reminiscent of a Surrealist’s dream.

The most visionary work in CI58 was “A tree; a corporation; a person (DAO #01, Black gum tree, Pittsburgh PA) from terra0. At its simplest, it is a living tree attempting to achieve personhood status. But the project is complex and evolving, seeping into areas as varied as law, business, politics, the environment and AI.

As conceptual works go, chances are that the work will be to the 21st century what Joseph Beuys’ “7000 Oaks” was to the 20th.

terra0, “A tree; a corporation; a person. (DAO #01, Black gum tree, Pittsburgh PA)” at 915 Ridge Ave. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art.

These could all be contenders for acquisition as could the forceful paintings of Mohammed Sami (born 1984, Iraq), the sensitive acrylic on mulberry paper works by Yooyun Yang (born 1985, South Korea) and Soun-Gui Kim’s (born 1946, South Korea) on-point multimedia work, “Stock Garden.”

One assumes the terra0 tree became, upon planting, a part of the museum collection since it has a contract with, and has issued the first of annual “certificates of care” to, the institution.

I say assumes because Carnegie Museum of Art chose to not prepare an acquisition press release, according to Sutton, the New York City-based media company the museum retains. This is a break with past procedure. An informal listing, requested by NEXTpittsburgh on April 25 and on May 4, has been promised but not yet provided.

The only CI58 work that I can confirm has been purchased is Diane Severin Nguyen’s  (born 1990, Carson, California) short video, “Tyrant Star,” which entered the collection in 2020 and was shown on the museum website during the early pandemic. 

James “Yaya” Hough’s (born in Pittsburgh in 1974) Hill District mural is a community outreach that lives beyond the Carnegie International closing. I wish his drawings, raw evocations of prison life, had been included within the exhibition proper. They were purchased by the museum in 2021 and displayed in the Scaife Galleries during CI58.

Contributing to this International’s overall lackluster was the way prime spaces were used.

Rather than giving over the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater singularly to Tony Cokes’ (born 1956, Richmond, Virginia) tortuously long (41 minutes) tale of celebrity Britney Spears’ conservatorship struggle, loops of CI58 video works could have been shown there.

A morning program could have, for example, included such visually engaging, aesthetically grounded works as those of Nguyen and Isabel de Obaldía (born 1957, Washington, D.C.). An afternoon loop could have shown the many documentary-style videos that were instead mounted in locations as unwelcoming as a rural bus stop waiting room.

Sculpture by the late second-wave feminist Kate Millett (born 1934, St. Paul; died 2017, Paris), best known for her writing, is still timely. But her sobering depictions of isolation and entrapment would have had more impact set in a stereotypical white cube gallery rather than within the splendor and distraction of Gilded Age architectural flourishes.

The close encounter experience of the sensorially morphing fiber panels of Daniel Lie (born 1988, Brazil) was diminished by their standoffish suspension in the Grand Staircase.

Installation view of “The Fountain I” (left), 2021, and “Abu Ghraib” (right), 2022, by Mohammed Sami. Photo by Sean Eaton, courtesy of the artist and Carnegie Museum of Art.

The Hall of Sculpture balcony atop the staircase, with plaster casts of classical marble figures, has regularly hosted art that challenged Western cultural ideals. 

Featured in the 1999 Carnegie International, Kara Walker’s silhouettes calling out slavery were shocking and astute; Nicole Eisenman’s plaster “Prince of Swords,” slumped over a smartphone, lingers to ask whether our species has progressed (CI 2013); overhead, Lother Baumgarten’s Cherokee alphabet syllabary also remains, inscribed upon the skylight (CI 1988).

In CI58, Sami’s painting “Abu Ghraib” hung like a dark shadow behind one of those pristine figures in arresting juxtaposition. Less impactful was an installation by Thu Van Tran (born 1979, Vietnam) comprising 10 large fresco-style abstract panels that appeared to contradict their original inspiration, the wartime defoliation of verdant countryside by U.S.-sprayed herbicides such as Agent Orange. Earlier works in her “Colors of Grey” series effectively communicated the devastation with an overlay of gray that clouded the colors.

One way to approach this International was to look for the thread that connected the works to the curators’ declaration that the show traces a particular geopolitical imprint and to ask how successful each was.

Tran, for example, who moved to France with her family as a child, addresses in her work the historic French colonial presence and American imperialism in Vietnam from a haven within the oppressor countries. Was the installation by Truong Cong Tung (born 1986, Vietnam) which addressed current issues there and employed traditional Vietnamese art media more relevant?

What were the criteria used to select the artists and art?

Two entries shone light on the activism of West Coast Asian Americans protesting the Vietnam War. But where was the also period appropriate representation of the 120,000 Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast who were sent to internment camps, their property seized, during World War II?

Indigenous artists from Guatemala (the source of the poetic exhibition title) and Canada were represented. But none from the U.S., though they have arguably the greatest grievance, one that long predates the CI58 timeline and continues to this day.

Installation view of car-grass-screen” (left), 2022, and “car-body-screen” (right), 2022, by Tishan Hsu in the 58th Carnegie International. Photo by Sean Eaton, courtesy of the artist and Carnegie Museum of Art.

In Scaife Galleries 1 and 2, and in the Heinz Architectural Center, the focus on work by individual artists gave way to that of collectives, collections, collaborations and compilations.

Several sections were guest curated including that by Hyphen–, an Indonesian “sustainable conversational space regarding aesthetic practices” founded in 2011. A co-recipient of The Fine Prize, their exhibition “As if there is no sun” championed the late painter Kustiyah (born 1935, Java; died 2012, Indonesia) through a feminist and activist lens.

Other presentations comprised objects as varied as artworks from the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile, and periodicals from the American Left Ephemera Collection of the University of Pittsburgh Archives.

The large number of items, incoherency of their raison d’etre, and crowded installation made for an overwhelming experience that many gave up pursuing.

Throughout the exhibition — and sadly in the catalog — standard information was lacking that would have helped visitors to understand the context of the works and artists exhibited.

Early on I questioned whether CI58 was a reflection of recent cultural change, an intentionally new path the curators were introducing, or an insurrection.

In interviews, Mohebbi was reluctant to characterize the exhibition, but emphasized the desire to explore solidarities that connect people across time and space. Inouye said that they dealt with the world they came into.

Curatorial assistant Talia Heiman brushed off an assertion that CI58 was very political with the comment, “All art is political.” 

When asked whether the atypical index of artists by first names in the catalog, for which she was responsible, was an action to challenge a Western paradigm, she answered that the artist files had been originally ordered by first name and the CI stayed with that sequencing.

Later I learned that this arrangement has been used in recent years by other institutions, raising questions of duplicity in her response.

Installation view of “Where Does A Thought Go When It’s Forgotten? And.” (detail), 2019–22, by Ali Eyal. Photo by Sean Eaton, courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art.

This is not a critique of method but rather a call to own it if it exists. CMOA did not respond to a request for an exit interview with all or any of the curators.

Early in 2022, NEXTpittsburgh launched a project to give extensive coverage to this Carnegie International, which due in part to the pandemic opened four years after the previous one. Lack of support from the museum’s media staff has been bewildering, from denials of interview requests with artists beginning in October with Carnegie Prize awardee LaToya Ruby Frazier, to outright nonresponse to even basic questions about the International. Although NEXTpittsburgh has published seven articles on the exhibition, that is at least eight fewer than originally planned.

CMOA staff, including Henry J. Heinz II Director Eric Crosby, seem pleased with this International. Soon they are expected to decide on the next curator(s) and exhibition dates. 

Before that is solidified, funders, supporters, board members and our local citizenry should be informed if a sea change has been set in motion.

If so, the Carnegie International as it has always been thought of — and as Andrew Carnegie envisioned it — is over.

Or maybe this was simply a one-shot reach too far as the curators essentially admit on the first page of the exhibition guide:

“The exhibition brings together an ensemble of erratic, cunning, unruly, disobedient, undisciplined and intractable attitudes and gestures that overwhelm the ambition of any one organizational intent.”

Mary Thomas was the longtime art critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.