Brooklyn-based artist Patrick Jacobs’s aptly titled show Come Closer to Me, at Williamsburg gallery Pierogi, beckons visitors to do just that — to step closer in order to discern extraordinarily detailed etchings of fungal rings and take in miniature pastoral landscapes. Spanning three consecutive rooms, the show is comprised of three distinct mediums and parts: sculpture, installation, and printmaking. In this show, Jacobs continues the series of dioramas that have become a signature part of his oeuvre since 2010.
Light emanates from tiny glowing portholes embedded in the walls of the gallery’s main room, windows into meticulously constructed dioramas of grassy fields and logs colonized by slime mold, puffballs, and lichen, all rendered in a saturated green (and one pink). The seven windows, evenly spaced around the room, range in diameter from 2 to 7.5 inches. Sculpted by hand from synthetic materials like acrylic, cast neoprene, ash, starch, and polyurethane foam, Jacobs’s dioramas are feats of delicate motor control. As Jacobs explains to Gallery Log, his intention is not to literally replicate nature; the blades of his grass curve with a distinct plastic-y wrinkle, and the orange spheres in “White Puffballs with Orange Slime Mold and Lichen” glow with the sheen of paint, like a candy coating that shines with the precision of Jacobs’s process and highlights the gap between the materiality of Jacobs’s universe and the texture of the physical world.
Though not immediately apparent to the onlooker, the dioramas are produced through complex optical manipulation; the piece of glass inset into the wall, separating the viewer from the diorama, is actually composed of two biconcave lenses stacked together. The resulting curvilinear distortion, also known as “pincushion distortion,” stretches the corners of the image outward (the opposite effect of a fisheye lens). The lenses bend light so that “objects shrink and distance expands,” Jacobs explains, heightening the “illusion of an ever expanding distance within a narrow space.” To counter the reducing effects of the lens, Jacobs constructs the dioramas at a larger scale than seen by the viewer and fashions the diorama in an intentionally distorted manner to compensate for the “pincushion” effect.
The miniature scale of the dioramas compels visitors to stand extremely close to wall, fostering a sense of intimacy that runs counter to the standard aesthetic distance enforced by most galleries and museums, where visitors are often expected to stand behind a demarcated tape line.
The scale of the Jacobs’s portholes, however, forces an intimate Duchampian communion in which the viewer — or more aptly, voyeur — must situate him or herself inches away from the art, and only one person is able to view the piece at a time. Though Jacobs’s art is embedded in the physical structure of the gallery, consciousness of the gallery space disappears from the viewer’s peripheral vision as he or she leans in toward the seductive glow of the porthole. Unlike the dioramas of natural history museums — which prize visual comprehensiveness and egalitarian experiences of nature — Jacobs’s dioramas achieve the opposite; “the semi-secretive presentation of his sculptures make the viewing experience all the more immersive,” Benjamin Sutton observes in The L Magazine, as the viewer’s field of vision is engulfed by the optical space and world of the diorama.
Though he credits traditional landscape and still-life painting among his influences, Jacobs describes his diorama landscapes as “anti-picturesque,” as failing to evoke a “wholeness of picture” and manifest the picturesque ideal espoused by 19th century Romantics. His dioramas are unimaginably rife with labor and obsession, but also remarkably unspecific and geographically unrecognizable. Instead of being transported and resituated into a fantastical world, viewers are thrust into a vortex of detail and optical stimuli. As Jacobs describes in an interview with the Pierogi gallery owners, the dioramas are:
… tactile in the sense that, though you can’t touch them with your fingers, you can feel them in your mind. You can perceive the space around a blade of grass and its physicality. It’s very strange, because they’re not two-dimensional and yet they seem not quite fully three-dimensional.
As the viewer steps through the small doorway of the innermost room of the gallery, as if sliding past the glass lens and entering the interior of one of Jacobs’s dioramas, he or she is confronted with a three-dimensional installation. A corner of Jacobs’s apartment, previously seen in his 2010 diorama piece “Window (view of Gowanus Heights #2),” is seemingly ripped from his building and fills one side of the gallery from floor to ceiling. Along with the corner, a section of Gowanus Heights in Brooklyn has been uprooted and planted in the gallery. In a sense, the installation functions as a legend to understanding how Jacobs constructs his dioramas; the installation elements are distorted in pincushion perspective, and the apartment and outside park’s illusionistic nature is immediately forthcoming. Like his dioramas, the piece is composed of completely synthetic materials, but, at such a large scale, there is little room for trompe-l’œil — foam is visible in the exposed cross section and a system of wood beams on wheels supports the Gowanus Heights terrain.
The third and final component of Jacobs’s show is a series of copper-plate etchings of fungal rings found on grass lawns. Following a similar impulse to that of his dioramas; Jacobs renders the fungal patterns with obsessive precision. He zooms into the lawns in a way that obliterates their geographical context, allowing the essential quality of the grass to dissipate, and lets his etchings become completely absorbed and saturated by the texture of the fungal formations; they dissolve into nebulous clouds of delicate marks. This part of the exhibition, unfortunately, is displayed over the filing drawers in the front space of the gallery, making it impossible for visitors to give the prints the scrutiny they deserve.
Using his proclivity for the pseudoscientific as a starting point in this show, Jacobs follows his aesthetic fascination with optics, scale, and mimicry to deftly maneuver different mediums; he pushes, pulls, and pinches to fashion images and sculptures that hover at the fringes of an earthly world, shimmering at the juncture between a two and three-dimensional existence. However, Jacobs’s impossibly minuscule worlds are, in a sense, too technically virtuosic. The compulsively engineered detail, albeit impressive, intoxicates and overpowers, distracting from more substantial arguments about scientific inquiry and environmental conservation that are teased at but unconsummated in Jacobs’s show.
Come Closer to Me continues at Pierogi Gallery (177 North 9th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through February 22.