Miniature Fantasies: Paolo Ventura

L'Automaton #06, 2010
Paolo Ventura
(zoom view available here)

Artist-photographer Paolo Ventura constructs and photographs miniature, dreamlike scenes. His Winter Stories represent the reminisces of an old circus performer. Above, a scene from the Automaton series captures a mysterious, half-built android. Who is the android's creator? When and where is this happening? Ventura's work is evocative precisely because it is so mysterious. (It turns out that Ventura's backstory for the Automaton series involves a lonely watchmaker in the Jewish ghetto of 1942 Venice - but still, that hardly answers all the questions a viewer must have).

As regular readers of this blog know, I have a fondness/weakness for artists like Ventura, Randy Hages, Thomas Doyle, Lori Nix, who work in miniature, as well as for photographs using effects like tiltshift (make your own!) to create surreal, toylike scenes. (I attribute at least part of this attraction to my unconsummated childhood desire for a model train.) To me, miniature scenes are permeated by a subconscious awareness that the scene is "wrong" - the textures, proportions, etc. are not quite convincing. The closer they are to convincing, the closer they are to the uncanny valley of magical realism, and to evoking a dreamlike or half-remembered state. It's hardly surprising that Ventura compares the "invented time" in his Winter Stories to the work of Italo Calvino.

Unlike some miniature artists, Ventura works with modest materials:

he spends only a week to 10 days building the set, at an average cost of around $30. He uses foam board, cardboard, plastic, and wood -- basically, anything that he can get hold of. (source)

Here's a short video of Ventura in his studio, talking about his creative process. It's a remarkably simple process of building just as much of a facade or city street as he needs for the shot, taking a series of Polaroids to gauge lighting and angles, and finally photographing the effect he has envisioned with a simple fixed camera:

As Ventura explains in the video, he will often leverage the obvious artificiality of a painted mural or backdrop to persuade viewers that the rest of a scene is real. (Apparently he sometimes displays these elements in the gallery alongside the photographs, a presentation which Jean Dykstra describes as "a bit of evidence that grounded Ventura's fictional 'memories' in constructed reality.") Whether in the gallery or in the photo, the degree to which an element is convincing has a secondary effect on those elements surrounding it; it baits the viewer into suspending disbelief at a different level than she might otherwise do.

Works by Ventura and other miniature artists (including Lori Nix) are currently showing at the Museum of Arts and Design exhibition Otherwordly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities (though Sept. 18). MAD describes the collection as representing two principles in some tension: first, our increasing familiarity with and receptiveness to alternative, virtual realities, and second, the yearning experienced by residents of a largely computerized world to craft things and work with the hands. It's an interesting pairing of concepts, and the list of artists represented is truly impressive; this looks like a show well worth the trip. If you can't go, visit the exhibition site and use the web viewer to zoom in for intimate views of the amazingly detailed, convincing dioramas Ventura and his peers have assembled.

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