We know it when we see it. And if you live in Pittsburgh, you see it all the time.
Sure, a drive through the East End can feel like there’s a new Legoland condo going up on every block and us old-timers will prattle on about the travesty of cranky old dive bars and red sauce Italian joints turning over into foo foo artisanal dining experiences with curated wine programs—but it’s really not that way everywhere. Huge swaths of Pittsburgh aren’t seeing any new investment; real estate values have barely budged; vacant lots and condemned properties way outnumber lived-in homes.
That reality gets a whole lot more obvious as soon as you head up or down any of the rivers. To most outsiders, (ex-)industry towns like Monessen and Clairton, New Kensington and Ambridge are the very picture of Rust Belt devastation. These are places where the mill shut down 40 years ago and took most of the people who lived there with it. Nature reclaims whatever is left untended and ultimately the wrecking ball will finish the job.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect word to describe it,” says artist Nathan Van Patter, whose current show Bound by Blight is an honest, loving, powerful meditation on life in another post-industrial borough, North Braddock.
“I chose the word bound because it has two meanings,” Van Patter says, “It means to be stuck—which is how a lot people in places like North Braddock find themselves. But it also has this other meaning of being bound together—people working to solve these kinds of problems as a community.”
Those dual themes—the weight of life in a crumbling physical landscape and the joy of that same life in a community where neighbors, bound together, truly look out for each other—inhabit every artwork in Van Patter’s terrific collection, even the ones in outer space.
Seeing the show, we experience enough of the hard stuff to get it. But Van Patter, who moved to North Braddock with his wife and kids four years ago, isn’t interested in “ruin porn.” The show is also full of the many many good things he’s experienced as a resident—a wall of portraits for various neighbors and community members, the metal shop and barber, sunflowers and urban farms, the big North Braddock sky.
Van Patter works in a medium we might call pictorial painted sculpture. You could also turn that around and say they’re paintings on wood constructions with sculptural elements. Van Patter just calls them paintings.
The pieces are literally rough—built on irregularly sized wooden boards with chips of rough cedar glued into place to approximate wood siding and stone, crumpled metal and bushy trees. The Orbit‘s photographs included here—or any photographs of Van Patter’s work—won’t do the 3-D elements justice, so we encourage the reader to see them IRL. (More about that below.)
The awkward chunkiness of the medium gives every artwork depth and texture, sure, but more importantly the fantastic quality that while we’re looking at real life subject matter—abandoned houses, police cars, utility poles—the scenes are distorted, dream-like, impressionistic.
That fantasy/reality divide runs through the full breadth of the show. Trees, fencing, and street signs jut out from a distorted North Braddock police car in Community/Police (above). Black-winged angels fly in the night sky above a fast food restaurant in the appropriately-named Angels Over Taco Bell (below).
Van Patter imagines an entire deconstructed home, including utility poles and power lines, packed-up and driven away in Moving Day 15104 (top). With The Nights are Too Big (above) an elaborate clock is made atop a grand day/night scene that contrasts the bucolic sunshine and flowers of the former with the symphony of sirens that score the dark night.
Blight is a heavy word. It’s a shorthand for the kind of urban decay that exists pretty much everywhere, but especially in depopulated, neglected areas where all those socioeconomic factors have very real world, visible effects. It’s also an outsider’s term—no one wants to describe where they live as blight.
“Blight, to me, is the combination of physical decay and intentional disinvestment in communities,” Van Patter says, “People know there’s a problem, whether they’d use that term or not … and it’s a word that gets used in community development a lot.”
Nathan Van Patter is a humble guy who thankfully doesn’t talk about his work with any level of art school mumbo-jumbo. He didn’t have to go looking for overgrown houses; they’re all real buildings right there in his neighborhood. The portraits are people he sees at borough meetings and his children’s day care. “Every time something bad has happened [in the neighborhood], something really good happens too,” Van Patter says, “I wanted to paint the portraits of people who’ve helped me and my family and are doing positive things for the community.”
Why insert medieval knights in armor on horseback into into several of the pieces? “I just thought it was cool.”
I think it’s cool, too—the whole thing. Nathan Van Patter, working a full-time job and raising a family, has invented his own very personal approach to creating a unique artistic vision. The artwork is both about the world immediately around him and stretches way beyond the Mon Valley—to knights in armor and sailing ships, angels in the night sky and the “Rust Belt futurism” of science-fiction space stations made from buildings right there in Braddock.
Whether those leaky old windows can hold oxygen is debatable, but that I’d like to visit this vision of the future is not. Beam me up, have one of those jousting knights bring the Aldi’s crudité, and let me at that long view coming out of the Ohringer building floating a couple thousand miles off the edge of the Mon River.
Bound by Blight is up now at UnSmoke Systems in Braddock. There will be a final opportunity to see the full collection at a closing reception this Saturday, August 20, 6:00-8:00 PM.
UnSmoke is located at 1137 Braddock Ave. in Braddock.