Column | Industrial Youngstown, Through an Artist’s Eyes
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There is always an interesting story behind the art of Jim Pernotto.
The dean of Youngstown artists, he puts his life into his paintings, photos and collages.
Pernotto specializes in semi-abstract works, including wall-size mixed media pieces. He works out of a downtown studio, where art projects are scattered about in various stages of completion or deconstruction.
Pernotto has exhibited his works many times over the decades in museums and galleries. But he’s very excited about a show he’ll open in June at the McDonough Museum at Youngstown State University. Titled “Steel-Town,” it will include several of his largest and most successful pieces from past exhibitions. It will open June 3 and run through July 15.
The exhibition features paintings and collages that are based on the mills that were a constant backdrop for Pernotto, or anyone who grew up in Youngstown in the 1950s and ’60s.
He showed them to me recently, explaining the story behind each one.
The centerpiece will be “La Puerta,” a 20-foot tall piece he created decades ago that was only exhibited once – at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Wisconsin in the 1980s.
“La Puerta,” or “the portal,” is made from items he found inside the abandoned buildings of the old Brier Hill Works soon after that mill closed in 1979. Work boots and gear, signage and other mill objects are arranged chaotically, with a skeleton amongst them.
“When Brier Hill closed, the workers just dropped everything and left,” he said. “It looked like Pompeii. The only thing missing were bodies.”
Because the abandoned mill wasn’t locked up, Pernotto and his companions would go inside and “pilfer the detritus.”
He took home dirty asbestos coats and welding masks, rusted tools, helmets, signage and other accoutrements of an industrial netherworld.
He was inspired by Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” and Ghiberti’s “Baptistry Doors” in creating “La Puerta.” Like those works of art, Pernotto’s piece is overlaid on two massive and ominous doors.
“I wanted viewers to have the same feeling I had when I walked into the abandoned mill,” he said.
Another oversized piece in the McDonough show will be “The Passion.” It’s a stylized painting that depicts the crucifixion of Christ with a backdrop of the former Republic Steel mill along Poland Avenue.
“This was the view from my bedroom in the house where I grew up in the Lansingville neighborhood,” he said.
The piece was last exhibited in 1981 at the Butler Institute of American Art, where it won the National Midyear Exhibition’s top prize.
Pictured: Jim Pernotto stands next to his painting, “The Passion.”
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