#OpenOnPenn: Art Exhibit Stirs Emotions

#OpenOnPenn Art Exhibition - Stifel Fine Arts Center

By Laura Jackson Roberts

What is art? That was the question I was supposed to be asking myself as I walked around the opening of #OpenOnPenn, the current exhibit on display at Oglebay Institute’s Stifel Fine Art Gallery.

My friend Christina and I wandered the space. All of the pieces had a modern feel, and the mediums ranged from paint to metal sculpture to….well, what exactly was I looking at? Beat up, crunched-down, spray-painted demolition cars. A panel of what appeared to be circuitry. A sheet of plastic blowing in the wind of an oscillating fan. I’ve been to many openings at the Stifel Fine Arts Center. I’ve seen photography, student art shows, and pottery. This, however, felt distinctly different.

OI Collaborates with Pittsburgh’s Most Want Fine Art Gallery

#OpenOnPenn is the result of a collaborative effort between Oglebay Institute and Jason and Nina Sauer of Pittsburgh. They own the Most Wanted Fine Art Gallery (on Penn Avenue, naturally) and served as the judges for the 2017 Regional Student Art Exhibition. Just as Wheeling celebrates arts and culture on the first Friday of each month, Jason and Nina are a part of Pittsburgh’s much larger monthly event.

Art Cars, Graffiti & Social Justice Issues

Jason created the focal point of the show: the “art cars.” Andy Warhol painted the most famous and valuable of these. But Jason doesn’t just paint the cars. He drives them too. His favorite pastime is demolition derby racing. Many of the artists on display have similar non-traditional backgrounds; some have no formal art training. This show has an urban, street-art feel, with elements of graffiti and intense graphics as well as a not-so-subtle nod to social justice issues.

Nothing about it will feel commonplace or ordinary. In fact, when you visit, you’ll realize how lacking in this type of exhibit Wheeling has been.

As we walked about the gallery, my friend Christina became obsessed with a particular painting. She’d disappear and I’d find her staring at it, mesmerized. We talked about it. We dissected it. We worked on some theories and asked questions. She spoke to the artist himself who explained just enough of the painting to stir up far more questions than he answered. By the end of the evening, she’d tied herself into mental knots.

I’m Feeling Uncomfortable.  Is that Ok?

It happened to me, too, when I came across a piece that took me aback. While some of the other work fascinated me, delighted me, or even confused me, this particular piece made me uncomfortable. I tried to pinpoint what about it bothered me. Was it the medium? The composition? I tried to break down my feelings and ask myself: What exactly do you dislike about the piece? Is there anything about it that you do like? What emotions are you feeling when you see it? What does this piece represent for you? Waves of discomfort washed over me as I considered these questions.

And then I felt guilty. I stood in this sacred space, amidst several of the artists themselves, creatives who no doubt worked their tails off and put their hearts and souls into these pieces. They came to Wheeling to share their work with our fine people and here I was, feeling, quite frankly, kind of icky about this piece in front of me. Was I allowed to be creeped out? Was that wrong? Was the artist standing nearby watching me watch crinkle my nose at their blood, sweat, and tears?

Stirring Emotion Through Art

I thought about my own medium. When I write, I want my words to make you feel something. It’s the writer’s job to stir some sort of emotion within the reader. Sometimes I try to control what you feel, to make you laugh or stir up sorrow. That’s a tightly crafted endeavor on my part. Other times, however, I’m writing for me, not for you. I’m writing about how I feel, and your reaction is solely yours. You may like what I’ve created; you may hate it. But as long as you feel something, I’ve done my job.

Did that artist want me to feel a certain emotion when I looked at that piece? Or did they make it as an expression of their own consciousness? I can’t know that. And I don’t think that’s the point of the piece. Rather than dissecting the art or the artist, I found myself dissecting me.

Quite frankly, it was exhausting. I got a lot more than I bargained for. That piece stuck with me. It continues to haunt me several weeks later. I’ve gone back to the exhibit to see it again, and each time I’m left thinking more about me than about the art on the wall. Well done, brave artist. Well done.

A photographer and friend of mine once told me that good art doesn’t give you the answer. It gives you the question. I hated the quote at the time because it felt like a way to explain art without truly explaining art and because I wanted that resolution.

But now I get it. The artist will ask questions. How we answer them belongs to us.

Go & See

#OpenOnPenn will be on display at the Oglebay Institute Fine Arts Center through October 27. See it free of charge Monday -Friday, 9am-5 pm., Saturdays 10am-4pm. Evening hours are dependent on classes & special events.  For more information call (304) 242-7700.