By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation, visual artists have found themselves in a paradox.
The shutdowns of the crisis’ early days left many artists with little to do and plenty of time. Conversely, finding a place to sell or display art publicly is considerably more challenging. But the landscape is shifting again as the oldest continuously-exhibiting visual arts organization in the country reopens its doors.
On September 8, Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, or AAP, debuted its first public art exhibition since the pandemic began. Titled, “Six Feet,” the show features the work of 26 AAP member artists created after March 13, 2020, when pandemic restrictions came down nationwide. Included in the exhibition are works by Heather Brand, Tony Havrilla, Sandy Kessler Kaminski, and Daniel Shapiro, to name a few.
The show was curated by a seven-member exhibition committee, made up of volunteer artist members of AAP. One of the first pieces selected for the show was Dyvika Peel’s “Sub Urban,” a large-scale sculpture that resembles a fallout shelter.
“Sub Urban” is constructed of two by four planks and styrofoam board, with vinyl tile sheet covering the internal structure. A genuine solid steel shelter door, weighing more than 150 pounds, completes the image. Peel took inspiration from her time in quarantine, which she spent away from the city.
“During a lot of quarantine, I spent time drawing, huddled in my partner’s family farm home,” said Peel. “One of the drawings I made was this underground shelter structure. Once I heard AAP was doing a show about quarantine, I knew I had to build it.”
Peel was particularly interested in the luxury houses that dotted the rural landscape, many of whom share various design elements. These have been termed “McMansions,” large estates with a mass-produced quality. Peel wanted to impart that quality onto a potential future dystopia.
“It’s supposed to resemble an underground storm shelter, but a more tacky, suburban version,” said Peel. “If quarantine and distancing is going to be the new normal, then maybe these would be the new McMansions.”
The size of “Sub Urban” also influenced how the rest of the work in the show was laid out.
“You have to go around it to see other pieces, you have to contend with it in some shape or form,” said Madeline Gent, executive director of AAP.
The physical distance the piece creates in the space mimicked the social distancing measures people have to follow now, so Gent decided to carry that idea through the rest of the layout.
“With the hang, we played off that idea of space creation and distance,” said Gent. “The labels are far away from the artwork, sometimes they’re in pods or clusters, sometimes they’re really far away from one another because that’s life right now.”
Also focusing on the dichotomous nature of the pandemic is Josh Mitchel’s “Irreconcilable Differences.” The painting depicts what appears to be two figures lying on a bed, completely shrouded in fabric. For Mitchel, it examines how something as common to life as a bed can have many different connotations depending on what happens in it.
“The specific imagery of a bed or cloth, it can be really beautiful, calming, silky, and undulating,” said Mitchel. “At the same time, it can hide or conceal things going on within yourself, your life, your relationships.”
For Mitchel, this idea has become extra relevant in the pandemic, as quarantine forces people inside, it also forces them to contend with their problems at home, whether those problems are with other people or themselves.
Because of that isolating quality of quarantine, Peel hopes the exhibition will be able to foster human connection in this time, and allow a place for Pittsburghers to explore the dimensions and layers of this bizarre new era.
“During this time, it’s important for people to feel like they can relate to other human beings,” said Peel. “If this show could echo some intimate feelings that others can relate to, I think it would accomplish something.”
“Six Feet” will run until October 2 at 100 43rd Street, Unit 107. Viewings are by appointment only. For more information, visit aapgh.org.