Cabinets of Curiosity

Miss Rockaway Armada at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

Through December 30

 Elsewhere at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art

Through December 31

by Katherine Rochester

As a founding member of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), artist cum scientist Charles Wilson Peale is also the subject of one of its most iconic paintings. In his self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum (1822) Peale mimes an infamous gesture. Swiveling into a come-hither contraposto, Peale lifts a velvet curtain to tantalize us with a glimpse of the first museum in North America, the stout legs of its pièce de resistance—the skeleton of a Mastodon—visible just beneath the edge of the rising drape. The canny composition of his portrait proves that Peale knew what any theater, opera, or sideshow director knows to be true: the promise of drawing back a curtain, opening a door, or sliding over a screen heightens curiosity. Nearly two hundred years later, Philadelphia is once again the site of installations that strive to pique visitors’ desire to discover. As in Peale’s museum, visitors to the Miss Rockaway Armada’s massive installation at the Philadelphia Art Alliance and Elsewhere Collaborative’s shadowbox-on-wheels at PAFA are similarly tasked with exploring the wonders of an unusual collection.

Winding its way through the ornate recesses of the Wetherill mansion (the Art Alliance’s home since 1926), Let Me Tell you About a Dream I Had (2011) is precisely the sort of eccentric collection of objects you’ve always dared to hope might lie within the walls of a turn of the century mansion. The antique parlor is abloom with cocoons made of patch worked street signs and a beached airship in the adjoining room lolls in the bohemian charm of a millionaire turned river rat. Tentacles of colored rope dangle from the chandelier over the grand staircase, while the second floor hides an aerial crab graveyard and a tiny Punch and Judy theater, if you can navigate your way through a maze of extraordinary sculptures to find them.

Despite its explosion of objects, the concept for the exhibition might at first strike those familiar with the Armada’s notoriously peripatetic projects as a peculiarly static gesture—until you step through the door. The exhibition is pregnant with references to the Armada’s larger Philadelphia engagement, which started in the summer with a series of parades, community craft days, and river excursions on homemade flotillas. Even off the river and in the galleries, these mementos hold water and every path in the sprawling installation leads to previously unnoticed chambers.

While the Armada’s work ranges greedily into every nook of the Rittenhouse Square mansion, Elsewhere’s Cabinet of Wonder (2010) is carefully contained within the larger group exhibition, here. at PAFA. A chest-high wooden cabinet on wheels, it sits alone in the sleek atrium of PAFA’s Hamilton Building like an organ grinder’s cart lost in a corporate foyer. And in fact it does make music. One of its many cubbies cradles a musical box gear that plays a mournfully nostalgic tune at the turn of the crank. Another drawer holds a sealed and labeled bottle of air from elsewhere; in still another sleeps a single high heeled shoe (red). There are blackbirds and fishing nets, and tiny dioramas visible only through eyeholes. Although it boasts only a fraction as many oddities as Peale’s cabinet of curiosities, its origins are likewise rooted in a vast and peculiar personal collection. Operating out of an erstwhile family thrift store, Elsewhere Collaborative is a residency program based amidst 80 years of knick-knacks steadily accumulated by founder George Sheer’s grandmother. Selected from the store’s massive inventory in Greensboro, NC, the Cabinet of Wonder is but a modest sampling from an even more marvelous collection that might give Peale’s museum a run for its money (or even its Mastodon).

While Peale strove for scientific legitimacy by christening his treasure trove, “The Philadelphia Museum,” the title of Elsewhere’s piece skips over the intrepid rationality of 19th century Linnaean taxonomy to draw a parallel with a more sensational collection from the sixteenth. Elsewhere’s “Cabinet of Wonder” is a direct translation of the German, “Wunderkammer,” the name for the rooms that housed the various riches amassed by Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand II of Tyrol. Ultimately housed at Schloss Ambras, near Innsbruck, Ferdinand’s Wunderkammer endures today as a haphazard glut of alternately precious and truly bizarre ephemera, an apt description of Elsewhere’s contemporary iteration on view at PAFA.

True to its namesake, Elsewhere’s Cabinet of Wonder presents its treasures in no particular order.  Built entirely from drawers, slots, and compartments, each component may be opened, pulled, turned, or lifted. Intimate in scale and pocked with peepholes, Cabinet of Wonder also recalls an earlier, iconic Philadelphia peep show. Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés (1946-66) has lurked in a back gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969. Two wooden doors with eye holes reveal a bewildering scene: a naked woman lies in long grasses with her legs flung open, one hand lifting a small gas lamp as a mechanically lit waterfall rushes in the distance. A testament to the irresistibility of spying, the peepholes in the door bear the oily traces of countless faces eagerly pressed against them. While nothing as strangely disturbing as Duchamp’s spread-eagle heroine haunts Elsewhere’s Cabinet of Wonder, the invitation to pry is no less seductive.

Both Miss Rockaway Armada and Elsewhere channel wanderlust into fulsome collections of memorabilia salvaged from vagabond days. Whether virally lithe at the Philadelphia Art Alliance or demurely self-contained at PAFA, Let Me Tell You About a Dream I Had and Cabinet of Wonder, are right at home; which is to say that in a city like Philadelphia, they sketch only the most recent chapter in a long history of furtive peepholes, secret passages, and questionable cabinets of curiosity. Seen against such a legacy, both projects are optimistic about the ability of eccentric collections to transport Philadelphians to strange new lands—if only we can muster the curiosity to raise our eye to the peephole.


Katherine Rochester is the Arts Writer for the Philadelphia Weekly and a critic for Artforum. She is an MA/PhD candidate in the History of Art at Bryn Mawr College and a Curatorial Research Assistant at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia.