WHAT: New Work by Joshua R. Marks
WHEN: Through Dec. 30
WHERE: Nina Freudenheim Gallery, 140 North St.
It must start in childhood, this beguilement with diminutive things. A child is surrounded by all these big hulking grown-ups in an environment that is all out of whack with a child's small frame. When a kid motors around a sand pile with a toy truck or outfits a doll in fancy dress, the scale is set right. In the pretend situation this little person creates the fantasy of the real, very big adult world out there.
Like much miniature art, a sense of childhood play permeates the little boxed dioramas that make up "Snapshots: New Work by Joshua R. Marks" at Nina Freudenheim Gallery. These tiny, fastidiously constructed scenes have a double magic. They not only convincingly offer miniature 3-D illustrations of real-life scenarios -- outings in parks, forests, on lakes and in urban settings -- but also possess the charm of old fashioned viewing boxes reminiscent of those found in arcades of old.
Marks, a Buffalo artist, builds each scene around ideas gleaned from snapshots taken on vacations, sometimes using photographs as backdrops for the tiny three-dimensional scenes. The boxes, decorated in finely crafted, decorated frames and mounted on specially designed wood supports or bases often reflect what's to come in the diorama. For instance, "Season's Greetings" shows a glaringly American family in the round posing before the Christmas tree while Santa himself appears in photo-illusion at a window behind. This comically saccharine scene is framed by muted red and green and gold designs suggestive of antique Christmas ornaments.
"Antarctica" has an oblique humor that comes from the nature of its subject: a crowd of red-jacketed tourists cavorting with regal penguins on a rocky shore. "Brooklyn" is witty by virtue of its exaggerated format: the viewing slot is a few inches high and runs four feet horizontally. It's like traveling along on an elevated train and looking out over the varied passing rooftops where people sunbath or take the air, all with the Manhattan skyline rolling on beyond.
"Marathon," one of the more compelling of the dioramas, features a realistic micro-rendering of an urban back lot where a family, or perhaps neighbors, have assembled. The accurately clothed and articulated figures are utterly convincing, the authenticity of their movement and gesture bolstered by striking details of the surroundings -- the pebble-strewn ground, the chain link fence, the disarray of garbage cans, the particular fall of the light.
Marks' ability with such Lilliputian slice-of-life scenes provides the great pleasure of the show. But there are problems. For one, unless you top out at about 4-feet tall, the viewing situation is very difficult. I had to bend radically sideways to get a half-adequate view, and when this didn't work, I had to kneel down like an altar boy before the host.
For another, the boxes are treated as free-standing sculptures that exist as separate abstract components, forcing a gigantic aesthetic and psychological leap to the never-never land of Marks' miniature theater inside. Also, the photography is more of a hindrance than a help. Looking into these scenes the eye moves freely over the well-crafted figures animated among 3-D illusions of water, rocks, trees or rooftops.
But then the eye slams into the photographic backdrop and all magic ceases. We've left the minute land of the handmade and entered the demanding realm of photography where reality is routinely swallowed in mammoth gulps. It doesn't jell with Mark's tiny magic world.