Richard Pell’s works, fueled by curiosity, exist within the intersection of being a maker, storyteller, documentarian, curator, and scientist. The Myth of the Great Outright Extraordinary!, Pell’s Artist of the Year solo show at the Pittsburgh Center for the arts, engages within the expected roles at art, science, and history museums. The difference, aside from content, in expected roles is the way they inform; a successful art show leaves audiences with more questions than answers, more aware of their knowledge and experience gaps, while audiences leave a history or science museums with increased knowledge. Pell, a Carnegie Mellon professor of art, presents these found objects and stories in a way where they occupies both spaces.
If there is a heart to this exhibition it is Pell’s Cabinet of Ambiguities. A quite literal tether between Pell and his viewer; an old-fashioned telephone activates the space. Simultaneously, one of the ten objects compartmentalized within a small glass display case is illuminated when an audience member puts the phone to their ear, and listens to Pell’s story about the object inside. Pell talks about how he came in contact with each of these objects, the history behind them, and either hints to or informs of its ambiguity. The sincerity Pell conveys through this experience puts the integrity of the show’s title, The Myth of the Great Outright Extraordinary! into question. Is this title simply hyperbolic? Or can the objects truly be great and outright extraordinary if the viewer chooses to become invested in their narrative? And does this really even matter?
Objects in Pell’s Cabinet of Ambiguities include a tiny framed cursive copy of the Lord’s Prayer, gracefully written by Martha Honeywell who created the piece by holding a pen in her mouth since she did not have arms. The sense of awe from this work comes from the process of its creation and the success Honeywell had despite her disability and the sexism she surely faced as a female artist living from 1787 to 1848. Other objects, like the FBI blacked out page in Robert Lansberry’s dense surveillance file derives its sense of awe from the absurdity of its existence and aura of mystery.
Ambiguity within these objects ranges; leading viewers to wonder about gapping narrative holes: what conditions brought this young girl to severe illness loops through their mind as they stare at the record inscribed with a dedication from a loving father as a song made by family and friends plays through the telephone. Objects from Pell’s family collection, like the metal milk carton holder invented by his great grandfather sense of ambiguity is simple, and overlooked. As technology and design constantly evolve, why is it that the standard shape of a milk carton has remained the same for over fifty years? In Pell’s words, “The stories that an object can tell accumulate and change over time as the world around them changes. Some get better with age. Sometimes you lose the thread.” I wonder if the milk carton will maintain its shape fifty or one hundred years ago, and imagine how this unseen history will change the way we value the metal milk carton carrier.
The experience of looking through glass paned cabinets reinforces a science-like objectivity mirrored in the permissive way Pell curiously watches the meaning and understanding of these objects change with time. As the viewers learn of stories about government secret surveillance, brainwashing, and experimentation that conflict with the America painted in history books, the news, and press events they attempt to understand in a state of conflict and ambiguity. Pell’s thirty minute documentary on long time Pittsburgh street protester, Robert Lansberry, “Don’t Call Me Crazy on the Fourth of July” examines the evidence supporting Lansberry's claim that the government was censoring his mail access. Shedding light onto this untold history, audiences leave questioning what the government might currently be concealing. Perhaps this is Pell’s greatest success; the audience leaves more aware, intrigued, and uncertain.
Rich Pell is a founding member of the highly acclaimed art and engineering collective, the Institute for Applied Autonomy. To see more of his work, check out his small museum, The Center for PostNatural History filled with creatures at the intersection of culture, nature, and biotechnology.