View of Nicole Eisenman's Couple Kissing, 2013, plaster, sage and mugwort, in the Carnegie International.

 

 

In 1896, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie inaugurated the Carnegie International exhibition as part of his philanthropic crusade to bring culture to the masses. The oldest U.S. survey of international contemporary art, now in its 56th edition, the show was also a way to acquire what Carnegie referred to as "the masters of tomorrow" for the Carnegie Museum of Art's then-fledgling collection. This year's International deviates from previous ones by offering a refreshing dose of self-awareness and reflection on the museum as a locus for civic engagement. At the helm are Daniel Baumann, director of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation in Bern, Switzerland, and two curators from the Carnegie, Dan Byers and Tina Kukielski. Eschewing an overarching theme, the curators have chosen to showcase a lean roster of 35 artists from 19 countries. The exhibition includes some artists already well known on the art circuit, as well as American outsider artist Joseph Yoakum and other kinds of practitioners, such as Tezuka Architects from Japan. The history of the International and the Carnegie Museum itself—a "palimpsest of a building," according to the curators—are put up for critical evaluation, with a reinstallation of the museum's modern and contemporary holdings.

In the catalogue's introductory text, the curators share their view of museums as sites "for a unique kind of optimistic, potentially destabilizing experience, with great political import." Although their perspective is admirable, the actual exhibition is at times lackluster. Without a strong thematic or formal logic linking the works on view, the presentation occasionally seems like a hodgepodge of contemporary art and doesn't always rise to the curators' idealistic rhetoric.

Several moments come very close: whimsical paintings over news images by Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh are mesmerizing, while Bidoun Library, an installation organized by Bidoun Projects featuring printed materials about the Middle East, is by turns hilarious and disheartening. Both the positive and negative impacts of Andrew Carnegie's steel industry are explored in the show, demonstrating the uneasy alliance between public and private interests that is a hallmark of U.S. history. Photographer Zoe Strauss's 2013 "Homesteading" project documents the inhabitants of Homestead, Penn.—a town that, in 1892, saw a bloody clash between striking workers from Carnegie's flagship mill and private security agents, and whose population and economy have dwindled with the demise of the steel industry. Art Lending Collection, an off-site initiative for the International, takes place at the Braddock Carnegie Library, in Braddock, Penn., and allows anyone with a local library card to borrow donated artworks as they would a book. The project was coorganized by the local art collective Transformazium and the Braddock library, which was founded in the late 1880s for Carnegie's steel workers to use, and which was the first of many libraries built in the U.S. by the industrialist.

"The Playground Project"—a show within the show, located in the museum's architecture wing—is the backbone of the exhibition. The forward-thinking use of public space defined Carnegie's philanthropy, and "The Playground Project" presents the role of the museum as parallel to that of a playground: a safe haven for play and exploration and a springboard for community building. Its unofficial mascot is Lozziwurm, Yvan Pestalozzi's 1972 twisting tubular play-structure, installed outside the museum for this year's International, where it will now permanently reside. "The Playground Project" consists of several dense informational panels on the history of playgrounds and their postwar design; Tezuka Architects' immersive installation run run run (2013), in which footage of the firm's oval-shaped Fuji Kindergarten structure (2007) in Tokyo is projected around a room filled with balloons; and Helena and Miwako (2013), a sci-fi film by Ei Arakawa and Henning Bohl that involves a three-week tour of playgrounds across Japan.

Some of the most successful artworks in the International engage with the museum's architectural idiosyncrasies or Gilded Age design flourishes. In the Architecture Hall, a Wunderkammer packed with cast-plaster replicas of the greatest hits of Greco-Roman architecture and sculpture, Colombian artist Gabriel Sierra made a subtle yet impressive change to the room by repainting its army green walls a lush royal purple. Some of Nicole Eisenman's comical plaster figures (all 2012 or 2013) hang over the Sculpture Hall's balcony balustrade, ruminating over smartphones, while others lay sleeping against plinths. Wade Guyton's untitled printer-paintings (all 2013) are installed in two rooms: four hang against the scruffy patched-up surfaces of the empty yet otherwise unaltered coatroom, while the others, licked by inkjet-applied flames, form a lean-to in the Founder's Room, an ornate holdover of marble and gold from the era of the Great Industrialists.