The use of maquettes and models by artists and architects has a well-established history. Maquettes are three-dimensional sketches, in effect, conveying practical and ideological information before a final work is realised. Models are representations of physical objects, usually in miniature. According to the Museo dei Bozzetti, Pietrasanta, Italy, where many of these are stored, both models and maquettes are intended to communicate “the creative part, the idea, the dream, the project as perceived, and the technical part, the translation into a final work, with all the variables and often forgotten stages and participants.” (http://www.museodeibozzetti.it/). In the case of the Museo dei Bozzetti collection, the resulting work is three-dimensional - plaster maquettes that later translate into marble sculptures, for example. However, another historical example provides a useful context for the way in which artists can use maquettes as part of two-dimensional practices.
In the eighteenth century, Thomas Gainsborough, constructed an optical device from which to make paintings. Gainsborough’s ‘Showbox’ was inspired by the ‘Eidophusikon’, “a miniature theatre for the display of paintings accompanied by dramatic lighting and music” (Wilson, 2007, p.60) which was unveiled in 1781 by the painter and scenographer Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. Gainsborough frequently visited the Eidophusikon. In common with this device, his Showbox employed interchangeable flats, in this case made up of glass panes that could be moved, on which he painted mainly landscapes. They were lit from the back by candles and viewed through a magnifying lens (Wilson, 2007, p.60). The Showbox becomes a maquette, according to the definition supplied by the Museo dei Bozzetti. It conveyed ideas and supplied technical information which could later be adapted to paintings on canvas.
This is paralleled, to a certain extent, in the work of contemporary artist Kim Keever, who constructs maquettes which are “never meant to be viewed separately as stand-alone works” (Gomez, 2011, p.45). These are constructed inside a 900-litre water-filled aquarium, into which he drops coloured pigments. These produce whorls and patterns within the water that evoke atmospheric effects such as cloud and mist. Keever then photographs his compositions using a large-format camera, displaying them as C-prints that resemble “lush” landscape paintings that deliberately allude to the “grandiloquence of 19th-century American landscape painting, for example” (Gomez, 2011, p.45). Keever’s work was exhibited in Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, 2011. David Revere McFadden, the curator, described his starting point for this show as the nineteenth century diorama, and almost all the participating artists ‘“fabricate small worlds, including landscape, interiors and other locations” in diorama-like formats’ (Gomez, 2011, p.44). In contrast, Models | Maquettes features the work of artists who use these as the basis of realised outcomes that include painting, photography, drawing, and sculpture, as well as including the work of those for whom model-making is the end result of their creative production. Other artists create models in parallel to painting practices, so that the two inform each other synergistically.
In Susan Stewart’s famous philosophy of miniatures, such objects are to be observed from a distance, “timeless and uncontaminable” (Stewart, 1993, p.66). They are islands that cannot be fully physically engaged with in an immersive sense:
“In its tableau-like form, the miniature is a world of arrested time; its stillness emphasises the activity that is outside its borders. And this effect is reciprocal, for once we attend to the miniature world, the outside world is lost to us” (Stewart, 1993, p.67).
This seems to suggest the impossibility of existing in both worlds – the real and the miniature. For Stewart miniatures allow us to escape from the real world into one which we are able to control. Is there a possibility, however, that they can be used to question and engage with it? The artists in this exhibition all deal with questions of scale. Rather than focusing exclusively on the small-scale, some of the artists in this exhibition enlarge the miniature format to the gigantic. Others use the maquette as the basis to create tiny, self-contained worlds of reference. Perhaps the appeal of models and miniatures lies not in our ability to control them but in the opposite (Jamison, 2019). In this sense the appeal of the miniature might lie in “the fantasy of being overwhelmed”, of “[feeling] the world grows impossibly large around us” (Jamison, 2019). Conversely it might lie in the fascination with spaces that, through their impossibly small size, force use to navigate and understand them purely perceptually. The use of maquettes enables this engagement with scale and questioning of what is ‘real’ and what is illusory. – Juliette Losq, February 2021