Fantasies on track: New England artists work with model railroads
As a kid Nick Capasso remembers watching his dad send a "little Lionel train" chugging around the tracks in their basement in suburban Baltimore.
As the grown-up curator of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, he has transformed the Casey Jones fantasies of model train hobbyists into O-scale art installations worthy of Salvador Dali.
Capasso organized "Trainscape," a fascinating constellation of 12 interconnected model railroad layouts conceived by 14 New England artists.
Don't expect miniature versions of the Boston & Albany line with tiny cows grazing on papier mache hills.
Instead, each artist was asked to create a 60-square-foot landscape from any materials they chose but designed so it could be connected by model train tracks to adjoining layouts.
Subtitled "Installation Art for Model Railroads," this surprising show sends actual model trains snaking through worlds made from poems and philosophic conundrums, through robber barons and around artist Ellen Wetmore's lactating breasts.
Inspired by public art he saw in western Massachusetts, Capasso invited 75 artists to submit proposals to build model train-themed installations reflecting personal interests. From 35 submissions, he chose the best proposals by a dozen teams of 14 artists.
Rather than replicate miniature rail lines down to the last caboose, they have imagined fantastic landscapes - complete yet variable worlds - linked by an O-scale locomotive rumbling through them all.
In a visual twist worthy of David Letterman, a video outside the gallery features a "train cam" shot from a tiny camera atop the locomotive that gives a miniature-engineer's eye view as the train passes through a dozen landscapes.
What does it look like?
Imagine stuffing the entire MBTA system into the DeCordova's 3,500-square-foot Linde Gallery and then asking artists to install a dozen stations from the ingredients of their imaginations.
They used stuffed animals and air ducts, a bust of Aristotle, and Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." And lots more.
Rather than parody the mini-replicas favored by hobbyists, they've used model railroads as a jumping-off point for their own creative excursions.
"This is different," said Capasso. "I didn't really expect such a wide range of approaches."
He compared "Trainscape" to public arts projects that encourage viewers to react to what they see. Capasso stressed artists used model trains as a conceptual starting point rather than a way to comment on a particular hobby.
Capasso said he was pleased by the "shifting scale" of differently sized works that immerse viewers in sensations of sound, light and movement.
"I don't think anything like this has been done before," he said. "People walk through and don't know what to say."
Providence, R.I.-based Robin Mandel and Gideon Webster have duplicated the "whooosh" of passing trains in "Inflatable Respiring Cloudscape." When a model train races through their installation, it triggers a blower that inflates hanging clouds and puffs air onto visitors' faces while duplicating the rumble of a passing train.
Instead of duplicating exact locations along actual rail lines, Joy Wulke, of Stony Creek, Conn., has created her own magic kingdom from mirrors, lights, rock candy and clear, frosted and dichroic glass. It could be Oz, a futuristic comic book city or a glassblower's fantasy but it's weirdly invigorating to look at.
Serving as the installation's rail hub, Chris Frost's "Municipile" creates an out-of-kilter downtown of familiar buildings like South Station, Cambridge City Hall and the DeCordova, jumbled together as if free from gravity and perspective. Think of M.C. Escher collaborating with the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
While most hobbyists miniaturize exact locations, the 12 DeCordova teams have constructed conceptual scenes that require imaginary leaps from viewers.
And that is the show's strength and its occasional shortcoming.
Some ideas, like Ralph Helmick's "Fourteenth Way," produce startling epiphanies. Taking as his starting point the first lines of a Stevens poem: "Among twenty snowy mountains / The only moving thing / Was the eye of a blackbird," Helmick adds the line - "And the occasional train."
So he creates mountains of words dangling on near invisible wires and hovering above, a red-eyed blackbird.
And Stuart Schechter subverts benign memories of rail journeys by reminding us that immigrants were exploited to lay the transcontinental railroad and trains carried prisoners to concentration camps. In his eerie "Plush," Schechter conveys this malign history by penning in stuffed animals behind wire fences like fluffy inmates at Bergen-Belson. Visitors must decide whether it comments effectively on complex human tragedies.
Mike Newby of South Chatham, Mass., is perhaps most successful creating his own hermetic world in "Trains of Thought" in which a model layout becomes a stand-in for the history of philosophic discourse.
Winding along the track, the train passes through the "Existential Desert" past Jean-Paul Sartre, between the disputing heads of Plato and Aristotle to a mock figure of "Freud balancing a controversial idea."
A far simpler layout, Sandor Bodo's "Buddha Express" conjures its own version of spiritual enlightenment by sending a train roaring through the head of the "Awakened One" who continues to smile blissfully.
Some ideas seem too simple or obscure and could be improved by additional fleshing out.
Ahmed Aballa's "Witness: A story without a narrator" references a story of colonial injustice in his native Egypt but fails to evoke it adequately enough for viewers to respond to. And George Greenamyer's anti-homage to rapacious Cornelius Vanderbilt doesn't exploit his subject's complex criminal possibilities.
Certainly Ellen Wetmore and Jeff "Jeffu" Warmouth provided the funniest, most unexpected creative response to Capasso's proposal. The Fitchburg-based wife and husband, who just had a son, built "Land O' Lactation," a bodyscape of mammary-shaped mountains and ponds of breast milk after Wetmore observed that, after her son's birth, her "life was taken over by her breasts."
Their imagined landscape incorporates quirky references to Mother Earth and the human habit of describing the body in geographic terms. It is head-shaking funny.
With 14 artistic conductors, "Trainscape" carries visitors through a dozen imaginary landscapes. It's a ride worth taking.
The DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, is open Tuesday through Sunday, and on selected Monday holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is $9 for adults, $6 for seniors, students and youths age 6 through 12. Children under age 5, Lincoln residents and active-duty military personnel are admitted free.
The Sculpture Park is open year-round during daylight hours.
Artists in the current show will discuss their work in Gallery Talks on selected Saturdays at 3 p.m. that are free with admission:
- Oct. 6: Ricardo Barros
- Oct. 13: Ellen Wetmore and Jeff "Jeffu" Warmouth
- Oct. 27: Doug Bosch
- Nov. 3: Chris Frost
- Nov. 10: Joy Wulke
- Nov. 17: Ahmed Abdalla
- Dec. 8: Mike Newby
- Dec. 15: Robin Mandel and Gideon Webster
Free guided public tours of the museum's main galleries take place every Thursday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Free tours of the Sculpture Park are given on Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. through October.
For further information, call 781-259-8355 or visit the Museum Web site at www.decordova.org.