My Mattress Factory Experience

I’m in the Pittsburgh area for the weekend, and I’m having a fabulous time. I had most of today free, and I decided to venture to the Mattress Factory. The Mattress Factory is an art museum in Pittsburgh that I have wanted to visit for a long time. Today was the day.

The exhibit, “Likeness: Transformations of Portrayal After Warhol” caught my attention. I liked the idea of “portrayal” expanding the idea of “portrait.” I was also excited it was a thematic show. I tend to like thematic shows because I get to see the work of multiple artists. I like it even more when, within that show, there are multiple pieces from the artists. Shows curated in this way allow me to think about the relationship of a single work to the series, a series to the show theme, and all of those in reverse.

I was not mentally prepared for the intensity of the exhibit. I experienced the exhibit starting in the basement. The first piece made me anxious. I stepped into the room and stepped back out. Then stepped in again. The work was by Tony Oursler and was called Vampiric Battle.


This piece was a series of video projections. The projections were viewed on face-shaped(ish) panels that had missing pieces. The missing pieces allowed the projection to spill onto the side walls. Each video had sound. Some of the sound was the person in the image talking. Other sounds were more like background noise and harder to distinguish (especially because I was so anxious). The projections were approximately 8 ft high. I had to walk past the first few to see the ones in the back.

My anxiety was unavoidable. Why did this piece make me so nervous? I realized that the nerves came from the very dark room, the fact that I was the only person on the floor at the time (save the projected people), and these faces were so huge it felt like a nightmare. This first artwork made me aware that I was uncomfortable being so alone. As I walked to the next floor, I continued to think about how the fact that I was viewing this exhibit alone did not allow me to escape in to conversation with someone else. I had to face the art, and therefore, face myself.

The next floor featured the work of James Turrell. The woman at the front desk informed me that the whole floor would be dark. When I got off the elevator, I was greeted by a map on the wall and directions about how to move through the space. The first piece I saw was a red rectangle projected into the corner of the room. I was never so happy to see a red rectangle in my life…it was the first light source I came across since I left the safety of the elevator. I made it to two of the three pieces and turned around while attempting to find the third. I was just simply too freaked out trying to navigate a dark space on my own…even though I “knew” where I was going thanks to my careful memorization of the map. It didn’t help that the old wooden factory floors were creaking as people on the floor above walked around. It occurred to me that if I was viewing the exhibit with someone, we could have laughed together if I walked into a wall. Instead, I was afraid I would cry and darted for the elevator. I moved onto the next floor without ever seeing the third piece.

The third floor slowed my heart rate down a bit. It was well-lit, first of all. The first room I entered featured a series of photographs entitled “Liberty” by Greta Pratt.

The thing that stuck out to me about these portrayals was how visually similar they are to religious iconographic imagery like the following images:

I never connected the statue of liberty with religious iconography before then. I also noted that the models Greta used for these photographs looked like people she found in her neighborhood or something – definitely not polished fashion models. I would love to know more about how her choice and portrayal of these people (wearing statue of liberty garb) and whether it is intentionally related to the issues certain oppressed peoples face attempting to gain liberty in the U.S.

Also on that floor were other works, and I’m not sure which were in the portrayal exhibit and which were not. Here is a sampling:

This is a picture I took through a glass window of a room installation. I don’t love this type of artwork. There was another room similar to this in another Mattress Factory building I visited later on. It feels to me like a cluttered and unnecessarily emotional 3D scrapbook page. I usually glance at works like these and move on (maybe that’s my problem).

The next two rooms were super fun. I was a little nervous when I found out you had to take off your shoes, but I took off my shoes and went inside. The rooms were designed by Yayoi Kusama. The first room used black light to illuminate a white floor with large dots on it. There were mirrors on the walls and ceiling. I thought back to the first work I saw and how it awakened my sense of loneliness. Now there were millions of me. I’m not sure which was scarier.


The dots continued into the second room, which you could access only through the first. I happened to think this room was fabulous. I began taking all sorts of crazy pictures. I took pictures of the ceiling and even laid on the floor to see how it changed my experience.


The final floor had work by Joseph Mannino (and others). I found Joseph’s work not only interesting, but very related to my dissertation research. His series of photographs is called “The Space Between.” Here were two of my favorites:



I plan on using his idea and making self-portraits that communicate some of the in-between spaces related to my research. Maybe I’ll post those soon.

It is interesting how art can make you search yourself. I respond so quickly and so emotionally to postmodern art such as this. This exhibit had me almost in tears and then, two floors later, acting like a little kid in a candy store rolling around on the floor until I got the shot I wanted. I also realized, thanks to the work in “Likeness,” that I have a deep need for others but possibly an unhealthy dependence on them (laughing with them allows me to suppress rather than confront my own anxieties). I also thought deeply about ways that Joseph Mannino gave me a frame for thinking about my many roles as researcher/participant/facilitator in my dissertation research.

I have some images from the second building I visited, but those will have to wait for another time. If you are ever in Pittsburgh and haven’t been to the mattress factory, check it out!

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