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June 29, 2011 5:45 pm

Otherworldly, Museum of Arts Design, New York

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'Beauty Shop' (2010) by Lori Nix

Faded Glamour: 'Beauty Shop' (2010) by Lori Nix

A visit to Otherworldy at the Museum of Arts and Design is a day trip back to childhood, with all its terror and glee. This intoxicating show brings together doll’s houses, peep shows, models and tiny stage sets, appealing equally to naive amazement and grown-up nostalgia. There is enchantment, delight and a soupçon of spookiness here for all ages.

The industrious artists who have crafted every elfin figure, tiny chair and gauzy flower rebuff the digital age’s slick, seductive glamour. While the rest of us luxuriate in Second Life and 3D movies, these artisans resurrect the diorama, a 19th-century technology perfected by Louis Daguerre before he went on to invent the photograph. At a time when so much art comes to us via the click of a mouse or an e-mail, they toil obsessively, and even a little crazily, to build a physical environment from scratch.

Given this old-fashioned approach, it’s not surprising that the past permeates the imaginary worlds gathered here. Take the not-quite-replica of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, where Michael Paul Smith grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. Smith started off by building tiny dioramas as backdrops for his collection of vintage model cars, ensembles he then photographed and posted on Flickr. His private hobby gained a cult following, and the enterprise soon took a more ambitious turn. Now, he has constructed an entire mid-century American town dubbed Elgin Park, eerily empty of people and balanced somehow on the cusp of reality and dream. The modest houses and corner drug stores recall the silent, alienated universe of Edward Hopper. They carry an unexpected monumentality, as if weighted with the artist’s wistfulness and desire.

Alan Wolfson also looks back with longing, evoking New York’s gritty past with Hopperish angst. His three-storey model of the Canal Street subway station, circa 1977, is a masterpiece of diminutive realism. It’s late at night, and minuscule shops hide behind corrugated shutters. In front of a pizza joint decked out in the colours of the Italian flag, a tiny garbage can leaks half-eaten slices and greasy napkins. Stairs descend from the eye-level pavement, so viewers must crouch to see the grimy tiles and peeling posters in the deserted station. Down another level, a grey-green, graffiti-smeared subway car gives off a brutal fluorescent glare.

Peter Feigenbaum’s version of New York is more sinister still. He remakes the blighted South Bronx in miniature and photographs it to disrupt the viewer’s sense of scale. That grimy, crumbling ghetto exists only in his mind, but it looks genuine enough. Graffiti slathers the buildings, weeds sprout up through cracks in the floor and trash skitters across the potholed pavement. Rusted cars, painted gaudy colours, drearily decompose in the streets.

Feigenbaum was born in 1984 and grew up in a Massachusetts suburb. He knows this desolate inner-city scene only from glimpses out of speeding cars and movies such as The French Connection, which wallowed in the stink of urban decay. “‘Trainset Ghetto’ is the physical byproduct of teenage suburban daydreams,” he writes. “It attempts to live vicariously through an alien post-urban 1980s landscape that was in no way part of my quotidian existence.” Only an outsider could find such gothic fascination in this dismal concoction of poverty and violence.

Many of the male artists here began as boy hobbyists, fashioning destroyers and fighter planes in the basement and guiding toy warriors across handmade battlefields. Menace and mortal threat are key elements of play, helping children manage their anxieties about growing up. Though small and helpless, they can tower over their miniature empires, directing, manipulating and controlling inanimate destinies the way adults manage theirs. That primal drive for mastery exerts the same charms well past puberty. Adults, too, can neutralise threats by shrinking them into objects small enough to fit between thumb and forefinger. Presumably that’s what induces the artists of Otherworldly to submit to the rigours of their craft.

“The building of dioramas for me is a way . . . to control the things that I can’t control in the ‘real’ world. It’s always exciting to dive into the small world in my studio,” writes Frank Kunert, the creator of a series of adorably absurd tableaux. In one, an adult-sized cradle comes equipped with all the comforts of the home office: telephone, file folders – even sad-looking plants.

Like kids spying on grown-ups, we gaze pruriently into these constructed worlds. Michael McMillen, a set designer by trade, has us peer into a hole in a box, where we observe a filthy, faded hallway straight out of a Raymond Chandler mystery. Behind one of the tall doors – but which? – we can imagine a blowsy woman in a stained negligee guzzling whisky, or perhaps a bullet-riddled body waiting to be discovered. Only one door is open, and dirty light streams across the threshold. At the end of the corridor, a grimy window flashes with intermittent bursts of lightning.

In the best of these unpeopled and surreal interiors, intricate detail conjures suggestive poetry. Charles Matton leads the eye into an artist’s studio, where a sculpted rhinoceros stands on a rickety steel table, modelling the beast’s armature and ingenious engineering. The wonder and precision recalls the drawings Albrecht Dürer made of a fantastical “rhinoceros”, as he imagined it from the descriptions of those who had actually seen one. Here, the absent artist possesses a cornucopia of documentation: another model, reflected in a mirror, drawings, photographs, life-size horns, studies – all waiting for the creator to get back to work. The scene is imbued with a fictitious personality, someone for whom close observation heightens the world’s mysteries. That nonexistent person is, in a way, the presiding genius of this show, which extols the union of the unblinking eye and the wandering mind.

‘Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities’, until September 18
www.madmuseum.org

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