In art, control is an elemental if underappreciated principle. At a basic level, art entails control; control over material, control over process, a lack of control over chance. Amid the chaos of life, what do you seek to selectively remove and stage? Richard Avedon viewed it as art’s defining element, reflecting, “I think all art is about control — the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.”
Which makes the interior world of miniature sculpture, dioramas, and, in the furthest extension, photographed scenes and tableaux, a fascinating ground zero of sorts for the ways control and the uncontrollable are harnessed to stir memories, feelings, and a seemingly paradoxical sense of unmoored and gauzy psychology. Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes and Mark Hogancamp’s externalized inner world (Marwencol) are among the most famous explorations of miniature’s rigidly unhinged spaces. A more recent Gulliver on the Lilliput scene has been Richard Finkelstein, whose A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes is currently on display at the Robert Mann Gallery. Formerly a trial lawyer, Finkelstein creates evocative, leaden dioramas, peopled with miniatures of the variety you might find at a hobby model shop: craggy, noticeably unproportionate figurines. Their settings and embellishments (pizza boxes, chairs, books, and rubble) likewise lack a slick finish. His rough renderings precludes a halo of verisimilitude from hanging comfortably over the photographs. Instead the unique mixture of recognition and distortion that toys and miniatures embody distills an uncanny, liminal quality, a peculiar in-betweenness which pervades his photographed miniature scenes.
Among his eleven photographs on display, Finkelstein’s demonstrates a dramatic use of lighting. His figures cast long shadows, shafts of lights transfigure rooms, and small pools of warm sunlight mellow in his subtle spaces. A “Lonesome Hero 1” and “Lonesome Hero 2′ feature anonymous singular figures, shut up and isolated by planes of light and dark. Finkelstein is interested with the mood and atmosphere of the lonely crowd and the solitary figure, returning to it repeatedly. “Ginger” gathers a crowd of figures, nondescript in their massing expect for the titular redheaded female, her prominence amid the faceless sea only serving to disconnect her from his neighbors as it sets her apart. Taken at loftly, angular positions above his mini-people, these photos suggests a voyeuristic, god-like view. What are they thinking? What do they feel?
Finkelstein’s photographs can also suggest a very personal space, echoing with inner thoughts and contemplation. “Time Enough At Last,” a photo of a single figure shrinking amid shadows and a sweeping, colossal book shelf refers to a famous Twilight Zone episode. Referentiality and reflection streaks through Finkelstein’s work, appearances of the way memory and the imagination layer and recur. “Cathleen and Colleen,” ostensibly one of his most ordinary works, features three female figures at an art gallery. Two woman are observing Diane Arbus’ famous twin photo (of Cathleen and Colleen). Another woman views a photo of people also in gallery. Two women viewing a photo of two young girls, a woman at a gallery looking at a photo of people at a gallery: the photos are like strange half-reflections, mirroring the partial way Finkelstein recreates reality.
Meticulously set, lighted, and lensed, Finkelstein’s photos can evoke — in an uneven and miniature way — the enigmatic and dreamy work of Gregory Crewdson. Both conjure a place of deep inner life — Finkelstein through the strangeness of the miniature; Crewdson through the fantasy of cinema. Also similar to Finkelstein are Mark Hogancamp and Jennifer Shaw, an artist whose series Hurricane Story used toys and figurines to tell the story of her and her family’s flight and exile from New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath. What is interesting is that their elusive, personal spaces come about from a near total control of their art. Out of the familiar and imaginative material of miniatures, they create their own staged parallel worlds. This is particularly important and moving in the work of Hogancamp and Shaw. Having lost his memory to a brutal assault, Hogancamp’s miniature world of Marwencol is his attempt to create and control his own replacement reality. His work in miniature, along with Shaw’s, is an effort to respond to their traumatic, lost experiences.
Ultimately, it’s a space of contradiction. He invites detached contemplation by placing the viewer is in a position of elevated height and size. But he also fosters personal, intimate details, creating and then admitting visitors to the small, intimate space of his mind’s eye. The world writ small and reduced, bounded into tiny, enclosed worlds, Finkelstein’s work is a kingdom of infinite space, evoking more than it contains.
Richard Finkelstein: A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes continues at Robert Mann Gallery (525 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 29.
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