By Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center)
Armed with his camera, Randy Hage explores urban landscapes threatened with eradication through development, gentrification, or other civic improvement schemes. Yet unlike the many other salvage-oriented artists who photographically document such streetscapes lest they vanish, Hage translates his photos into meticulously crafted scale models. Rather than just imaging these places, he materializes them; in some cases, he re-materializes buildings that may have been destroyed since he photographed them. Through the laborious process of simulating structures along with their contents and immediate environs, Hage must develop a particular tactile as well as visual intimacy with the sites and buildings in question. For him–and presumably for many of his viewers, patrons, curators, and collectors–the physical presence of his dioramas makes palpable a nostalgia for the corner stores and “mom-and-pop” businesses being rapidly replaced by big box stores and multinational chains (even if the commodities Hage lovingly miniaturizes are the same in both kinds of outlet). Semiotically, the hand-crafted nature of his art lends itself to memorializing small-scale economies of place rather than the corporate behemoths that he bemoans (and that are treated with equal, if contrastingly large-scale, attention to detail by photographers such as Andreas Gursky). In their affection for vanishing places rendered containable, collectible and preserved, the models evoke miniature ethnographic villages in natural history museums.
Despite the impressive materiality of Hage’s dioramas, most viewers likely enjoy them only through photographic mediation (and the additional miniaturization that photography allows). On his personal website, the artist invites people to evaluate the “sculptures vs. the real structures,” although what we see are only photographs of both (moreover, the specific photographs on which the models are based). This medium and mode of comparison flatten the scale and physical reality of both building and model while enhancing the illusion of their absolute likeness. In some cases, the carefully lit models appear more richly dimensional than the actual structures shot under overcast skies. What at least this viewer yearns to do is stand before the remaining storefronts, models in hand. Yet such an exercise risks additional fetishization of the “original place.” Moreover, despite–or rather, due to–being enchanted (in Gell’s sense) by Hage’s considerable fabrication skills, one might miss his intended level of political-economic critique. What the remarkable models-as-art don’t show, which photography or film or ethnography might, is the presence of neighborhood denizens with a stake in the continued existence (or disappearance) of these colorful, dilapidated, vernacular vistas.
For those in the Los Angeles area, there is a chance to stand in the presence of the dioramas at the Flower Pepper Gallery until November 15, 2013.