Richard Pell’s Artist of the Year show is Extraordinary, indeed | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Richard Pell’s Artist of the Year show is Extraordinary, indeed

Here are things he thought he understood, but which reveal themselves anew each time he encounters them

Sound thinking: A close-up of the dial on Richard Pell’s Specific Radio.
Sound thinking: A close-up of the dial on Richard Pell’s Specific Radio.
In The Myth of the Great Outright Extraordinary!, Richard Pell offers us a space to resist the obvious. In a world where we are so often called upon to divide and conquer ourselves, in which we must stand as either Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, Pell’s Artist of the Year show at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts is an aggressively apolitical testimony to wonderment, to thinking about things above and beyond ourselves, to having an answer but insisting on still asking questions. Bring the kids.

Pell is a Carnegie Mellon University art professor and co-founder of The Institute for Applied Autonomy, a science and arts collective. He is also founder of the Center for PostNatural History, his nationally publicized, Garfield-based storefront museum exploring phenomenon like genetically modified organisms. But while it has some elements of a contemporary museum, The Myth of the Great Outright Extraordinary! is (as its faux-hype title implies) very carnival sideshow-esque, abandoning most stodgy gallery conventions in lieu of a fully engaging experience. It’s a small exhibit, limited to three rooms, affording the audience plenty of time to interact with and peruse the displays.

Begin with “Don’t Call Me Crazy on the Fourth of July,” Pell’s half-hour 2005 documentary about dearly departed local eccentric Robert Lansberry. (Here is where I almost wish the show were bigger, with a room dedicated to the viewing. As is, you must stand and watch with headphones attached to the wall.) For three decades, Lansberry could be seen on the streets of Downtown, wearing a sandwich board requesting the return of his mail and the end of mind control. Pell takes what seems like a cut-and-dried subject — a mentally ill and societally neglected war veteran — and veers unexpectedly. It turns out the government (did? has always?) intercepted the mail of millions of civilians, and also conducted many experiments exploring mind control, some on subjects unaware of their participation. Lansberry’s FBI file is revealed to be hundreds of pages long, most of it cruelly redacted. The film is an amazing introduction to the larger exhibit — a kind of Vimeo MC, heralding the astonishment to follow.

Next, step right up to the Specific Radio, a multimedia installation featuring a variety of interviews and song snippets. Soak in and appreciate its design: The radio is mounted on a column like the bottom half of a Victrola, with a flat dial in place of the crank. As you turn the dial, a star-chart wall projection turns with it, each story presented visually as a constellation in the universe of Pell. It’s no wonder he was awarded Artist of the Year. There might have been a million garish or boring ways to present the audio, but Pell found the exact right one. A highlight is “Tom Stone,” about a man whom Pell interviewed while wandering around Indonesia as a college kid. Stone was six years into an eight-year journey to walk across the world, something I didn’t know was possible until I tuned into Specific Radio. (Stone’s travels ended when he was killed by friendly fire while serving as a medic in Afghanistan, a story worthy of its own doc.)

The centerpiece of Great Outright Extraordinary is Pell’s Cabinet of Ambiguities. Enter the dark center gallery, and encounter a grand, monolithic, polygonal phone kiosk at the center of the room. Pick up any of the 13 receivers and the corresponding cabinet light will illuminate an object of autobiographical interest to the artist. There’s the small journal once owned by his grandmother as a teenager; listen as Pell tells the tale of her study-abroad encounter with Adolf Hitler. Move on to the homemade 45 that Pell collected and which conceals in its placid vinyl grooves the soul-quaking timbres of loved ones singing to a too-young woman on her deathbed. Afterward, enjoy a cleansing laugh perusing one of Pell’s many Hubbard electrometers, lie detectors used by Scientologists, more ridiculous in person than what you’ve heard. In the corresponding audio (which grows more marvelously distorted as it goes on), Pell informs you that this early model was actually designed after an old carnival game.

It’s no contradiction to say that this show, which is largely autobiographical, is focused on looking above and beyond oneself. In an age where the art world is plagued with embarrassing candor and vanity, Pell utilizes his life as a way of exposing our society’s increasingly narrowing thought processes. Here are things he thought he understood, but which reveal themselves anew each time he encounters them. Like the greatest artworks, it is both timeless and of its age, personal and culturally relevant. There is a sister standard for it in literature, Auto-Fiction, manifested at maximum in the global blockbusters of Knausgaard and Ferrante. Pell’s show can be conceived of as Auto-Art.

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