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Small Wonders

Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities
Canal Street Cross Section by Alan Wolfson. Source: madmuseum.org
Alan Wolfson, "Canal Street Cross Section" 2009-10

The Otherworldly show at the Museum of Arts and Design highlights dioramas and small models of various kinds, some of which were made to be photographed. But it’s the 3 dimensional pieces that shine. Beautifully done, imaginative, full of surprise, they need nothing to make them completely satisfying. The 2 dimensional photographs, on the other hand, seem afterthoughts, shadowy simulacrum of intensely vivid originals. With one or two exceptions they fall far short of the three-dimensional works with which they share the space.

And so it is curious to have to look at this show from the photographic vantage point, since that is the least interesting way to look at it. Certainly there are established names here: James Casebere and Lori Nix, for example, but that doesn’t seem to matter. When seen next to the concrete models their work fails to impress. One might even ask why they needed to photograph their models at all. Is it because having toiled in the thankless field of craft, they wish to ascend to the highly paid realms of Art? Because photography outranks model-making in today’s art market rankings? Because it pays more? I wonder.

Garden of Unearthly Delights by Matt Collishaw.
Matt Collishaw, "Garden of Unearthly Delights" 2009

As for the objects, they have a long history of magic behind them. Puppet theaters and dollhouses and toys of all kinds, magic lanterns and kaleidoscopes, movie theaters and fun houses and museum dioramas—-anything, really, that partakes of the fantastic is a precursor. Not to mention Joseph Cornell’s boxes and Alexander Calder’s circus and Giacometti’s constructions and even a Picasso sculpture or two. In fact, there are so many connections, one loses count.

Yet, first and foremost these are essentially models– just like the ones created by set designers and architects, and using precisely the same materials and techniques. Some, like Matt Collishaw’s Garden of Unearthly Delights, incorporate a more high tech element (although I have seen far more daring work in the Artbots shows) while others like Alan Wolfson’s Canal Street Cross Section are classic film exteriors. Almost all have a quality generally banned from Art: charm.

The photos, of course, are one degree further removed from real life. They are imitations of an imitation, illusions of an illusion, and consequently flat. Physically flat because they are 2 dimensional, emotionally flat because they do not give us the exquisite pleasure we get from the objects themselves.

Dioramas and miniatures have some kind of magic about them, something deliciously toy-like that returns us to childhood, to recover for a moment a child’s delight in small wonders. This show enables us to do just that, and not since Christos’ The Gates have I seen viewers enjoying themselves quite so much.


Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities


Museum of Arts and Design
2 Columbus Circle
Midtown         Map

212 299 7777
madmuseum.org

Tuesday, June 7 to
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Hours: Tues-Sun 11 to 6
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
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Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery