People have always found scale models fascinating, whether they are the dollhouses, trucks, and trains of childhood, or the pricey ship and plane replicas gracing many grown-up shelves. In recent years, a small group of contemporary photographers has explored the special qualities of the world in miniature, building and then photographing their own tiny stage sets, often with very dramatic and intriguing results. Two excellent examples of such work are now on view, by sheer coincidence, in neighboring galleries in Pioneer Square. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us with his observations on these two related, but very different exhibitions.
There are many instances in both Ross Sawyers’ and Bill Finger’s nearly adjacent exhibitions where we can forget , for a moment, that we’re looking at photographs of tiny scale models, rather than the full-sized environments those models represent. The way both artists manipulate the subtle tension between what we see and what we know, reinforces an important theme of both shows: “You can’t believe your eyes.”
In fact, both photographers are also careful to include visual cues as to the illusion in progress, though their method for doing so is quite different. In the case of Sawyer, whose range of subject matter is much narrower and sense of the theatrical much more understated, it’s a combination of little things, like the scale of the folds in the plastic wrap that appears in nearly every image, or the impossibly thin edges on his wall and window cutouts. Bill Finger, on the other hand, has in his most recent work chosen to pull his viewpoint far enough back to include a peek at the tabletop or wall space just beyond his construction, allowing us to recognize the artifice at work - but not without a bit of a shock, his models being so convincing.
Finger and Sawyer also start from different frames of reference: Sawyer includes literal quotes from artists like Edward Hopper and James Turrell, and is preoccupied with formal composition, and the poetics of emptiness and light; Finger, who worked in the film industry as an assistant cinemaphotographer, finds inspiration in both childhood memories and the world of Hollywood make-believe.
Many of the images in Sawyer’s show are in black and white, further adding to the austere, even minimalist look of his work. Sawyer’s field of inquiry is the unfurnished room, its bare walls and simple trim suggestive of modern, mass-market townhouses or apartments. Sawyer is interested in using the unpromising backdrop of these neutral spaces as a stage for quiet dramas of space, containment, shadow, and light. The human presence is implicit but remote; someone always seems to be moving in, or doing renovations, as most of the images contain some sort of plastic sheeting used to cover walls or windows, or protect portions of polished wooden floors or boxes. Patches of direct sun create patterns of light and shadow reminiscent of the paintings of Edward Hopper, and a clear, bright sky is always either visible or implied.
Edward Hopper is the direct source, in fact, of Sawyer’s image, "Untitled (Blue Sky I)," a model of an empty corner office, seen from just outside the building. Sawyer has reversed the Hopper painting, and removed the rather anonymous office worker and his furniture, but he has preserved the architecture and viewpoint , as well as carefully reproducing the trademark chevron of angled light on the far wall. Like Hopper, Sawyer uses light as a stand-in for emotion and memory, and there is an artificial, stage set quality to Hopper’s office (stripped down in detail, rather than a fully-realized structure) that fits Sawyer’s program as well.
A more interesting artistic dialogue is between Sawyer and James Turrell, the master of light and space whose sky viewing room is a permanent feature of the Henry Art Gallery. In an earlier Henry show, Turrell constructed imaginary floating cubes in the upper corners of empty rooms using only shaped light. Sawyers mimics the same construction, but by the very different means of actually cutting away the upper wall and ceiling of his space to achieve the required shape, something that works here because his structure has no visible thickness. Sawyer’s phantom boxes, like his mysterious light and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t plastic sheeting, gives these most prosaic spaces the quality of an enigma, caught in mid-process between creation and destruction, between what we understand and what we cannot fathom.
If Sawyers’ frames are like stills from a moody, high concept art-house flick, Bill Finger works the much more populist territory of Film Noir (in Technicolor). An astonishingly-adept craftsman, his lovingly-detailed environments include genre-appropriate details like inch-long ashtrays, cigarette cartons and lighters, six-inch scuffed black office chairs and two-inch file folders. Nearly every image in his small exhibition (nine modest-sized pictures) might be a scene from the same movie. These include a hospital room; an interrogation room and an adjoining office; a bleak, windowless corridor; a leather armchair in a tenement bay window (seen from the outside at night); a close-up of what might be a crime scene; and a '50s Chevy half-submerged in a pond, a direct reference to Hitchcock’s Psycho.
The movie reference is made even more explicit by Finger’s very smart decision to let us look slightly beyond his set, where we catch glimpses of the tabletop, electric wires, cardboard, and even clothespins that are the mundane, real-scale underpinning of his work. It’s fascinating how even the magician explaining his trick doesn’t change our conviction that Finger’s spaces simply record real environments, no matter what our brain tells us.
In "Hospital Room," for example, details like the institutional blue and beige color scheme, the look of the slightly bent-upwards single bed with its accompanying tray table, the fake woodgrain wardrobe closets, the panic button, and the not-quite fully-functional Venetian blinds inspires a familiar feeling of aversion and dread in the viewer. That is no less true even though Finger shows us the edge of the raw foam core ceiling and walls, the worktable on which the model sits, and the space of his workroom beyond. The antiseptic corridor, "Exit," seems to smell of recently-applied floor polish, and the flocked walls and black fire door are just as despair-inducing as they would be if we were just leaving an elderly relative ensconced nearby, in spite of our clear view of the wooden struts outside holding the whole construction together.
The pleasure of Finger’s work, and in a different way, that of Sawyers, is not just the illusion of reality, but the illusion of control. In life, we are the helpless playthings of a universe we neither created nor understand. Making models, like voodoo dolls, shrunken heads, or those Egyptian dioramas that accompanied the noble dead, indulges our deepest fantasies that power over tiny replicas will transfer to power over their real-world counterparts – the power to alter what happens, the power to walk away from an episode that isn’t going well. Nonsense, of course, but for the moments we spend with these two very strong and related shows, one can always dream.