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A Conversation with Richard Melvin 

 

 

Between May 23 and June 19, artist Richard Melvin lived and painted "for all the public to observe" in a comfortably furnished storefront at 922 Penn Ave. The Wilkins Township-born artist staged "Looking In Looking Out" as a performance artwork. His daily activities were documented with streaming audio at www.lookinginlookingout.com, and with a film documentary.

 

 

How has it been reintroducing yourself to Pittsburgh?

I'm old enough to remember the old mill days, and it's really cleaned up. It's like a new city. You see great diversity here. ... I've seen the homeless, I've seen Mennonites, I've seen people of every ethnicity.

 

I used to work across the street, and we saw a lot of transvestite prostitutes.

At night, Dennis Rodman shows up: The evening trade is still here. They're doing business, and they ignore me.

 

So you're saying Pittsburgh transvestite prostitutes have no interest in the arts?

This interview is getting strange. I detect a slight comic edge in this story. But one can say that. They are business people. I haven't had too many people in business suits come in here either.

 

Did you spend much time Downtown growing up?

When I went to school at Robert Morris, I saw a lot of Downtown. You could go into the library and wave at the prisoners [in the old county jail]. They'd wave back, although you never knew what they were saying.

 

And here you are, imprisoned and observed yourself.

I call this a minimum-security metaphor. Look at our TV ... we have [shows like] Oz, Jailbreak, CSI, all that stuff. ... We have the largest proportional prison population in the world. It's like popular culture is the oil change of America: You pull out the dipstick to see how dirty it is, how much sludge.

 

A lot of prisoners wouldn't mind a cell like this.

Well, there are no conjugal visits. It's not allowed. Positive behavior is the norm. ... This is the Ivan Boesky suite of minimum security here, but I've been on good behavior. There's been no underwear adjusting or anything like that. I did try to do a quick change and somebody caught me, but my underwear looks like I'm wearing shorts. It's not like I was wearing a thong.

 

Would you say you're an exhibitionist?

I'm the youngest of four children, and the youngest do [seek] attention. I've also done nude modeling off and on, and after that, this is really tame.

 

[As two teen-age girls hold up signs saying "I love you" and caper in front of the window while Melvin films them]: Have you gotten a lot of that kind of response?

People do wave, but this is the most we have had here. Paul [Stewart, who is doing PR for the performance] said he wanted to see how many wedding proposals I would get. I've been disappointed so far. A woman did tap on the glass asking directions. I get a lot of requests for directions ... "where are the titty bars?"... but she asked what my next project was. She said, "I was my brother's muse, and I can be your muse too. ... I'll come back; I know where to find you." But she didn't come back. Maybe she could have been my muse.

 

I notice you're wearing a Cork Factory T-shirt, you have a display case of Red Bull, and from your Web site, I gather your furniture was sponsored by Perlora.

This event is like a public/private confluence of sponsors. The Cork Factory has been very generous. ... [And] that couch is hard to beat.

 

Some artists might accuse you of selling out. How would you respond?

I've thought about that. It doesn't really bother me. In the day and age we live in, that mentality is still prevalent in the arts, but people realize you have to take steps forward. This is helping bring me back to Pittsburgh. This was no little expense on my part, and part of the inducement is I get six months free rent in the Cork Factory. I'm required to wear the T-shirt, but I'm sort of a T-shirt guy to begin with. ... It never seemed to bother either Picasso or the Rockefellers that Picasso, the communist, was championed by the Rockefellers

 

You could also argue that the product placement is like reality TV: When the crate of goods lands on Survivor island, it'll be stuff from Target.

It's a post-Soviet-era commercialism. It's always been there, but it's more prevalent now. Look at Downtown. My Edinboro art history professor, George Pitluga, once said that the skyline of any era reflects the dominant values of the era. In the Gothic era, you had the big cathedrals; now you have the corporate buildings.

 

I notice you've got a TV by the window. Have you been watching it?

It's sort of symbolic. And you can't get anything on it anyway.

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