Museums in Miniature

John Haber
in New York City

Otherworldly, Dioramas, and Do Ho Suh

Try to guess which museum I have entered. Part of the charm of "Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities" is just how many buildings, places, and times one can imagine entering. It combines paintings and photographs with dioramas and scale models, for contemporary art in miniature. It offers a preview to Do Ho Suh in Chelsea, on a scale that tries to encompass them all.

But is it art?

I could have entered a historical society, with reminders of the past. Paul Michael Smith, for one, photographs a generic American past—a diner, a rural frame house, a street in Nebraska. It could be a museum of the city, for so often the past is New York's. I knew Peter Feibenbaum's ghetto and Alan Wolfson's subway platform, even if I could not say where. Amy Bennett's Hypochondriac (photo by the artist, Museum of Arts and Design, 2010)I remember a New York of peep shows, like Jonah Samson's, and the tenements in another kind of peep show altogether, behind a fisheye lens by Patrick Jacobs or a hole in a sealed traveling box by Michael McMillen. Then again, the museum could be an Asia society tracking cultural change in the present, like Tracey Snelling's city block complete with a marquee in Chinese and a KFC.

It could be a science museum, the kind with Chris Levine's lasers and their blood-red instructions: SEE. Of course, science museums look back, too, as dioramas have in the past for such artists as Hiroshi Sugimoto, Black Acid Co-op, Rackstraw Downes, and Kara Walker. Mat Collishaw resurrects the zoetrope, a precursor to motion pictures with slits in a spinning drum, for his Garden of Unearthly Delights. The dark display case holds a cross between a theater and a carousel—populated by butterflies, bats, their nests, and nude babies. They trade Hieronymus Bosch's horror and innocence for constant motion, and nature here has literally outgrown infancy, at least in size.

It could be a more storied kind of science museum, a museum of natural history. Kids look forward to one not for what they might learn, but for the scale models, the larger the better. And sure, one has one snow-capped mountain and tropical forest after another. Thomas Doyle lays his out on the floor, with an ostentatiously plastic blue lake. Kim Keever's simulates Romantic depth and grandeur, Matthew Albanese's looks wild and untouched, and Didier Massard's comes with the pathetic appeal of a posing monkey. David Opdyke's hangs upside-down from the ceiling, like an assault on the others—or on his own model aircraft carrier some years back.

Then again, it could be a contemporary art museum, soaked in "art as objecthood." It even has a display of early Modernism, thanks to Ji Lee, with a tiny Piet Mondrian nestling above the elevators. It also has at least one well-known photographer. James Casebere stages suburbia not as a psychodrama with live models, like Gregory Crewdson in his Twilight series, but with crisp paper houses. They give Dutchess County in contrasting day and night a larger than life presence. Caspar David Friedrich turns up, too, although within Guy Laramie's steel drum, as if the iconic shipwreck in ice had simply stopped for fuel.

One can think of the show as a peek behind the work of art, to the artistic process in miniature. That would explain Joe Fig's models of Jackson Pollock and Chuck Close in their studios, in meticulous detail. Is it an accident that Pollock's athleticism sits so close to a wheelchair-bound Close? Fig recreates his own studio as well, including a model house and, perhaps, an infinite regress. The exhibition often pairs photographs based on models with the models, although Fig does not make photographs, and Casebere will not display his trade secrets. Wall labels for photos alert one when to look.

But this is the Museum of Arts and Design, as I trust you knew. If the show spans so many purposes, the whole idea these days is to cross the line between art and craft, high and low. The design collection here includes a Palm Top Theater by Jitsuro Mase and Tom Nagae, plus snow globes by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz. Unlike most paperweights, they contain a giant insect, a puppet master, a natural disaster, and people lugging trees into place. The curator, David Revere McFadden, insists on a fine-art antecedent for dioramas long before Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, in Louis Daguerre. One can enjoy the irony that photography did not always make it into the arts.

The ruins of nostalgia

McFadden has his themes, but they do not noticeably distinguish one segment of the show from another. With so many natural and unnatural wonders, this can get a tad repetitive. Allow me, then, to impose my own themes. Start with the sheer number of model architects from many nations, a matter of wonderment in itself. Nothing makes a better case for crossing lines. Architecture already does.

Another is the lure of nostalgia, in visions of both nature and the city. Lori Nix's violin repair shop pairs her craft with an older one, with a model street view just outside the model windows. For Charles Matton's Library with Memory of Anna, the old shelves and young woman reading share a personal history and personal allure. Another theme is, conversely, a desperation to avoid nostalgia. One can see it in Samson's hooker and flasher, the urban blight and decay, the tongue in cheek, and the claustrophobia. Bethany de Forest combines them all in saturated plastic colors, for both a narrowing highway and a dense strawberry garden.

Another is self-reflection, in art about art and in art about itself. The Hudson River School jostles with Edward Hopper. Gregory Euclide's landscape peels off in 3D onto the floor, while Mariele Neudecker's video within a model provides a backdrop. As "The Chadwicks," Jimbo Blachly and Lytle Shaw intrude into their own Dutch interior (a project they pursue with their "Nautical Collection" in Chelsea). MAD's cramped galleries only add to the illusion of image within image within image of architecture. So do museum-goers with their cell phones, for photography is apparently permitted.

In reality, these themes blend into one another, as they have elsewhere for the New York of Lothar Osterburg. Romanticism loved ruins, peep shows turn to film noir, and claustrophobia haunts childhood memories. One can feel the haunting in Rick Araluce's narrow corridor with exactly one door open on an unseen interior. One can feel it in Frank Kunert's office as antique crib and his empty restaurant, with its sole table for two wrapped around a corner. One can feel it in Consolidated Life, by David Lawrey and Jaki Middleton. Behind a fake and threatening concrete exterior, empty desks recede into infinity while a ghostly chair spins around and around and around.

One can see the blend, too, in the rare hints of people. Paolo Ventura's organ grinder plays while others huddle in the chill and rain. He calls them "automata," but they belong to an old Europe and to a vulnerable humanity. One can almost forget what counts as natural or artificial light. Gas rises into Oliver Boberg's alley at night, and he could be speaking for almost everyone in describing it: "I am not interested in reality because there is none."

Maybe or maybe not, and one can disparage the work as too otherworldly or too literal. One can complain that the "small realities" have a nearly uniform scale, smaller than life but larger than your average dollhouse. For an exception, Amy Bennett pairs her paintings of doctors offices, already smaller than Bennett's earlier interiors or later landscapes but just as psychologically charged, with an even smaller model. Junebum Park makes do without a model at all—just a parking lot shuffled by his enormous hand, while people scurry by in stop-action video. But a diorama is supposed to provide a visible fakery along with wonderment. By that measure, "Otherworldly" does well.

The perfect storm

It is still hurricane season in Chelsea. Row apartments fill almost an entire gallery. Broad, three stories tall, and incredibly detailed, Fallen Star looks all the more solid for the ample space to circulate around it. Do Ho Suh's Fallen Star (Lehmann Maupin, 2008–2011)Do Ho Suh has sliced it wide open, but he seems to have disturbed nothing in twenty years. One can pore over room after room to imagine the distinct lives in each one. The artist will draw you into his memories, but watch out. By the end those lives have come apart in a storm, and how one sees them depends on where one begins.

One can imagine how the United States must have struck the young man from Korea. Suh was nearly thirty in 1991, when he came to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, and they must live well in Providence. They must also tolerate a wide income range and diversity. The clean modern building has room for a warm brick front, a stately entrance, and a gabled ceiling with dormer windows—and Suh has labored over them all. The one-room apartments have room for one's worst excesses, and residents seem uniformly to have indulged in them. They range from the prototypical male dorm, with an awful taste in rock posters, to a painfully old-fashioned mix of porcelain and patterned wallpaper.

Every space is filled to excess, from furniture to dust to books on the floor, and the artist has modeled every bit. Between that and the placement relative to the gallery entrance, one is likely to walk first past the wide-open interior. That way, one can share a sense of wonderment, of familiarity, and maybe of regret at one's own past choices. A truly model kitchen, with a boxy old frig but nice pots and pans, does not preclude a diet of packaged food. And then the last apartments do come apart, in a torrent of wood and other debris. Look, a visitor said to his son, they are taking the building down.

Not quite. A few more steps and one sees a small house crashing right through the back, trailing fabric like a parachute that failed to break its fail. One might have spotted it sooner from the other side, the exterior. Windows still allow admiring the illusion, with details as fine as a cereal box or a Roy Lichtenstein poster over a comfortable bed. As for the party crasher, it looks western enough, too—even with its traditional wood screens and a sign out front in Korean—but we are not in Kansas anymore. Weather and climate change aside, is all this a parable of globalization? Does Fallen Star foretell the end of a way of life based on consumerism, thanks to the Asian miracle?

Again, not quite. The artist takes things personally, as a confluence of histories still his own. East has met west before, at the gallery's downtown space in 2008, in Reflection, Suh's model arch based on both Korea and New York's Chinatown. Here he represents his childhood home, and the crash suggests a twin heritage, but also a twin loss. No wonder the model house has many lives but no people. Home Within Home, a still spookier version in glowing green resin, skips even the furniture.

As in "Otherworldly," dioramas have uses as natural history and as nostalgia. Suh just happens to pack multiple histories into one diorama. They also again tend to stand for the artist at work, for here the very first room is a messy studio. It may say something that the life-size sculpture of his Specimen series tackles thermostats, fuse boxes, light switches, and bathroom fixtures—in other words, means of control. It may say something, too, that Suh has stretched sheer fabric over them all, like nylon stocking fetishes. For him, house and home are always caught up in personal desire.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities" ran at the Museum of Arts and Design through September 18, 2011, the Chadwicks at Winkleman through July 29, and Do Ho Suh at Lehmann Maupin through October 22. Portions of that last review appeared in Artillery magazine in a rather different version. Related reviews look at "Miniature Worlds: Art as Model" and "The Museum as Muse." A later review takes Amy Bennett outdoors.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME