Diorama Life

Look too long at these miniatures and you'll start to think everything could be made of cardboard

If you could set foot inside one of Tracey Snelling's miniature sculptures, it would be something like walking into Paris Las Vegas. The Paris-themed casino is not so much a replica as an atmosphere, a jumble of "French" motifs -- cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, the Eiffel Tower -- condensed and extruded in three dimensions. In this Paris of the mind's eye it's always twilight, that magical hour between what has already happened and what is just about to occur: a gambler's mix of melancholy and hope.

This mood is Snelling's true subject, although her dollhouse-scale "structures" and the photographs of them that comprise her exhibit, "South Side," more closely resemble the dodgy outskirts of Vegas than the sanitized Strip. They depict the lonesome rural backwaters, decrepit tenement buildings, and abandoned storefronts indigenous to the American landscape. Although these buildings' heyday has long since faded, the spaces are nevertheless full of possibility. In the structure Backwoods, for example, someone has created a makeshift firing range out of empty liquor bottles, but then left his rifle leaning casually against a tree stump. What compelled the drunken hunter to depart without his gun? In Mini Mart, the door to a well-stocked convenience store stands ajar, but there's no one inside. Has the clerk ducked out back for a smoke? Or is something more sinister afoot? These ambivalent moments evoke a mysterious past and spark curiosity about the future, inviting the viewer to fill in the details.

Like the Paris casino, Snelling's works aren't exact copies, but rather amalgamations of familiar scenes. Everyone's seen a store like the one depicted in Mini Mart. It's square and nondescript and glows from inside with a generic, soul-sucking fluorescence. The structures may be inspired by actual places, but they're more like archetypes: intended to evoke a feeling more than a specific locale. Occasionally, however, they border on stereotype. For instance, the meeting tent, snakes, and hand-lettered religious signposts in the structure Revival reference Southern evangelical Christianity, but when reduced to the scale of toys (complete with a push-button sermon soundtrack) they seem like little more than well-trod Americana.

Miniaturization -- as in dollhouses and model trains -- is pivotal in Snelling's works, and accounts for both their power and their problems. Because it makes things seem both more precious and otherworldly, the structures become fantasy landscapes just by virtue of being small. But instead of fairy tale castles or idyllic domestic scenes, Snelling romanticizes the forlorn and abandoned. Her work feels like an early Tom Waits song, conjuring the beauty of decay with carnival-esque good humor. It's a seductive world, allowing us to sample the danger and poignancy of being down and out without actually experiencing the hardships of poverty and loneliness.

For this reason, the photographs are more successful than the three-dimensional works, if only because they play with our perception of scale. Snelling shoots her structures in front of actual landscapes so that at first glance they seem to be life-size. Hopeless appears to be a photograph of a '50s-style neon sign tilting over a neighborhood of low-slung warehouses and chain-link fences. The first indication that something is amiss is the sign's lettering: Rather than showing the name of a motel or restaurant, it reads simply, "Hope. 3 miles ahead." On closer inspection, the neon starts to look like plastic tubing, and the wobbly lines of the Visa and MasterCard symbols give the sign's true dimensions away. Snelling has artfully photographed a miniature to look as if it's part of a real scene, but she's also left us some clues as to its artifice. Hopelesssuggests that all landscapes are, to some extent, colored by our emotional states when we view them; as the artist makes obvious by integrating emotionally charged words into her pieces, landscapes are constructions onto which we project our fantasies -- and our hopes.

The most ambitious piece in the show extends this idea into three-dimensional space. Tenement is a huge miniature, a 7-foot-tall tower constructed out of several smaller apartment buildings stuck together at haphazard angles. Departing from the obsessive detail of the other structures in the exhibit, the building's surfaces are textured with a broader hand, and the clotheslines that tether it to the wall are hung not with tiny garments, but with pieces of fabric easily recognizable as bits of full-size pantyhose and underwear. But what's most striking about Tenement is that it's populated. If you peek into the windows, you can see stills and video loops from classic movies (among them Carnal Knowledge, Rear Window, and Sunset Blvd.) and hear overlapping sound clips suggesting the hubbub of apartment life. Like miniatures, movies represent another process by which our fantasies take shape and stretch beyond ourselves. Similarly, Tenement isn't self-contained. The clotheslines connect the tower to photographs of itself in a twilit landscape, mounted on the wall. These pictures not only create a neighborhood for the piece, but they also bridge the gap, somewhat obviously, between two and three dimensions, representation and reality. As if that's not enough, the piece is installed next to a window looking out over the rooftops of the Mission District. If viewed from the proper spot, it becomes part of the real skyline outside.

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