Nobody can resist miniatures. From 18th-century dollhouses and contemporary architectural maquettes to ancient Egyptian reliquary artifacts, taking pleasure from peering down on diminutive worlds seems to be a universal human delight. After all, as writer Rachel Nuwer notes in her essay for Feel Big Live Small, an exhibition of miniature sculptures, videos, and photos at New York nonprofit apexart curated by Elan Smithee, they offer “a way not only to represent the world, but also to tame and perfect it, excluding the randomness and entropy of outside forces.” Indeed, there’s a sense that, because they present hermetically sealed idealized environments frozen in time, miniatures are small-scale escapist fantasies that shut out the problems and complexities of the real world. But, as some of the works in Feel Big Live Small make plain, miniature sculptures can ask enormous questions.
There are pieces filled with ambiguity and melancholy. Tracey Snelling‘s vibrant and mysterious city dioramas, “Bad Girl” and “The Parade Ends” (both 2012), with their embedded, flickering LCD screens, are entrancing. Her video collaboration with Idan Levin, “The Stranger” (2014), on view nearby, adds another layer of alienation and malaise to the already gloomy streetscapes. Other works are more poetic, like Kathleen Gerber and Lori Nix‘s diorama of a disheveled and picturesque observatory, a rendering of a tool for looking whose every detail is a delight to observe. Joe Fig, meanwhile, turns the miniature theme on its head with his diorama “Self Portrait: Collinsville” (2013), an exacting rendering of his own studio (complete with dog, paint-splattered walls, and warped floorboards), where he constructs, paints, and photographs miniatures of other artists’ studios. In such works, the genre of the miniature functions less as an idealized copy of reality and more as a tiny portal to elsewhere.
Meanwhile, some pieces in the exhibition offer glimpses of small spaces that are downright somber. Foremost among them is Dante Brebner‘s “Underwater” (2010), in which the visitor, peering hard through rectangular cut-outs into a small white box on the gallery wall, can see the silhouette of a person floating just below the surface of the water while, far below, a life raft sits on the ocean floor. In Thomas Doyle‘s “Proxy (725 Bauer Ct.)” (2012), the same suburban sandbox scene is depicted upside-down and right side up, in one version with a family playing, in the other with soldiers inspecting the charred site after a bombing. These dark and diminutive landscapes upend the convention of the miniature, making us voyeurs who peek at scenes of death and destruction.
There are, however, a handful of works in Feel Big Live Small that do disservice to the notion that miniatures can be vessels for complex and challenging ideas. Chief among these is a tiny version of Walter White’s meth laboratory from the Breaking Bad TV series by the Chicago-based customized LEGO seller Citizen Brick that’s installed front and center. The sculpture reinforced my belief that LEGO, though it’s a fantastic toy and hobby, just does not work as a sculptural medium. There are prints from campaigns created by Madrid-based advertising agency Serial Cut that don’t look any less like advertisements for being presented in a gallery setting. Alice Bartlett contributes photos of tiny figures frolicking on her grassy nail art. These works sacrifice complexity and reinforce the cutesy, commercial side of small-scale sculpture.
Where are works by Mark Hogancamp, Wafaa Bilal, Lothar Osterburg, and others who create transporting and challenging little alternate realities? At times, Smithee’s show makes the world of contemporary miniatures seem smaller than it really is.