Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Through March 16

“Now that just about anything might be done and called art, let it only be done well,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. That seems to have been the simple, admirable idea that guided curators when they created the latest iteration of the Carnegie International, America’s oldest periodic survey of contemporary art. Only 35 artists and art collectives are represented in the Carnegie’s “strikingly thoughtful” 56th edition, but the 320-piece exhibition draws from all corners: masters and upstarts, elites and outsiders, artists bearing urgent messages and those content to merely dazzle the eye. Starting outside the entrance with two eye-catching sculptural works—including a snaking yellow tunnel by Swiss designer Yvan Pestalozzi that toddlers are welcome to climb into—the show conveys a sense of play that blockbuster art events too often miss.

That sense of play might even bridge “a supposedly great divide” in today’s art world, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Instead of choosing between market-friendly, object-oriented art and art-related social activism, this show champions both modes, and suggests that play is a common thread. Transformazium, a three-woman collective based in a struggling town outside Pittsburgh, won inclusion here thanks to a project in which they’ve convinced the town’s library to lend out art donated by artists from around the world. Meanwhile, Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh has reworked photographs of 2009 Iranian street demonstrations into a “disturbing, if often beautiful,” video animation. Nearby, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes has found a way to repurpose guns into striking sculptural assemblages that double as musical instruments.

“There are misfires here, but only a few,” said Andrew Russeth in Precious little thought seems to have gone into Taryn Simon’s series of “overly produced” photographs of weapons and starlets from the James Bond films, and all we get from Italian sculptor Lara Favaretto are “reliably bland nth-generation post-minimalist trivialities.” The work of the show’s outsider artists, by contrast, looks great mingling with more mainstream output. The galleries that hang Paulina Olowska’s paintings of Soviet bloc women near Joseph Yoakum’s primitivist, idiosyncratic landscapes “amount to a sophisticated fugue on notions of insider and outsider, art and craft, and the ways in which culture, high and low, is transmitted and digested over time.” There will be those who’ll find this show a touch too earnest. I’m not one of them. By eschewing the excesses of big-money art for work that is “intelligent, nuanced, and often unashamedly beautiful,” the Carnegie Museum has produced “a quiet triumph.”