'Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities' are Little Worlds Made Cunningly

Trompe L'oeil Games Provide Insights at Museum of Arts and Design

Everything is Important and Nothing Really Matters at All (2009), by Mariele Neudecker.

The curators of “Otherworldly”—which consists largely of meticulous models and dioramas, some of them artworks themselves, others constructed by artists only to be photographed—trace the diorama back to Louis Daguerre and posit as its animating question, “What is real?” But that’s not really the question anymore, except insofar as Renaissance perspective, like Newtonian physics or the Ten Commandments, continues to dominate the popular imagination. If there is a question, it might be “What is the difference between art and design?” But there’s no particular urgency to that one either, since art and design, like spectacle and pathos, can so happily be concurrent. In fact, you could say that “Otherworldly” consists of two separate, concurrent shows: one for children and other devotees of technology, and one for devotees of art.

Looking for art, the first thing we confront is nostalgia. And the most complex and generous take on the fantasies of security and control that underlie it is Michael C. McMillen’s The Studio, a found, herringbone-pattern, wicker case with a Lucite handle. If you put your eye to a stainless steel eyepiece in its side, you see a dirty, empty hallway with a half-open door at the other end. But this little studio reveals itself only when, as if making a conscious act of faith, you hold down a separate button on the pedestal to light the little light bulb inside.

Other artists take on nostalgia more directly. Michael Paul Smith photographs models inspired by his small-town childhood. The Diner Interior is so close to verisimilitude that whatever reveals the diner as false—maybe it’s something in the proportions, or maybe the walls are just too clean—makes it jarringly uncanny. Peter Feigenbaum built a block of burnt-out ghetto to shoot; in Hole in the Sky 6, a corner of the pale blue sheetrock behind the row of buildings is pulled away. Lori Nix’s Violin Repair Shop is a photo of a model of an impossibly cozy workroom with impossibly high ceilings that might be located somewhere over Carnegie Hall. Out the window is a line of half-destroyed buildings. Here the nostalgia pertains to method and content at once: does it seem hopeful or pathetic that someone, somewhere, is carefully varnishing a hopelessly old-fashioned instrument while the rest of the world is coming to an end?

Still others push deeper into the uncanny, so that the building of models becomes a sublimation of violence. Frank Kunert’s Menu à Deux shows a long table, covered in linen and laid with silver, that bends 90 degrees around a corner, so that two diners can watch two separate televisions and pretend they’re alone. And just beside a window in the museum that looks out across Columbus Circle to the glinting, black and gold Trump International Hotel and Tower are two enormous, majestically terrifying digital prints by James Casebere. (In this case we have only the photos, not Mr. Casebere’s models.) Landscape With Houses (Dutchess County, NY) #8 shows a pack of large, white-and-gray houses with clean walls and sharp lines set on an astroturf hillside among a loose scattering of above-ground pools and autumnal trees. Their shadows trail down toward the viewer like wakes, as if they’re sailing up away from any human gaze into the empty, annihilating sun. Landscape With Houses (Dutchess County, NY) #3 shows a similar plastic paradise by night, among pines, under an overcast sky.

But concurrence can also be confusing—when we look for technology, we may just find art again. Joe Fig, who builds models of artists’ studios from exact, point-by-point measurements, fully inhabits art as science, or counting as knowing, for good or ill. Chuck Close contemplating an unfinished portrait or Jackson Pollock frozen in the act of casting black paint across a canvas on the floor doesn’t give us as much as Mr. Fig’s portrait of himself in his own studio (Self Portrait 2007), which includes another, smaller model of itself. In that case, Mr. Fig’s counting is contagious: it also has one little ceiling fan; three boxes, 15 large canvases and eight clamp lights in the rafters; a flatfile; three skylights; and a peaked roof 34 shingles long.

'Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities' are Little Worlds Made Cunningly