Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Little Gritty City

Last month, I interviewed artist Randy Hage about his models of New York storefronts. Now, urban miniaturist Alan Wolfson talks about his own obsessively detailed scenes of the city.

From vanished Times Square porn palaces and graffiti-covered subway stations to Nathan's hot dog stand and Village Cigars, Wolfson's miniatures are delightfully squalid dollhouses for dwellers of the urban underbelly, for tiny Travis Bickles and mouse-sized Ratso Rizzos. Spend a few hours touring his website. Until then, here's my interview with the artist.

Peepworld, 2007

Q: I am particularly impressed with Peepworld. The level of depth and complexity is incredible, right down to the Lilliputian butt-plugs and dildos in their packaging. I can practically smell the disinfectant from that mop bucket. How did you get so much accurate detail into the work?

A: I ended up hiring a photographer/friend to sneak a camera into what remains of Show World. I needed pictures of architectural and design details. Back in the day he and his (now ex-)wife performed on those infamous stages, sometimes as many as six shows a day. He felt totally comfortable wandering around with his little spy camera--and I got what I needed.

Peepworld, 2007

Q: Your work definitely gives the viewer a sense of being a voyeur, and your Times Square pieces go right along with that. Especially those grimy hotel room interiors--I think of a tiny Travis Bickle plotting violence in those rooms. What is it about looking in that is, for you, so appealing?

A: The average person, unless they spend their time frequenting places such as Peepworld, are likely to walk by that place without stopping to look in, no matter how curious they might be. However, they can spend as much time as they like looking into my sculpture without fear of being seen, recognized or possibly confronted. They are provided with a safer way of satisfying their curiosity.

The scenes of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver were quite inspirational in some of my earlier pieces. When thinking about my curiosity for Bickle’s apartment, I think back to one of the first times I was interviewed about my work. I was asked what my goal was, as someone trying to earn a living by making art--my response was “to not die in the gutter.” Probably one step removed from that would be to not spend the rest of my life living in Travis Bickle’s apartment.

Times Square Hotel Room, 1982

Q: What attracts you to these seedy places?

A: I don’t think I’m automatically attracted to those “seedy places.” I just think they’re more interesting than the more wholesome locations.

I decided that the best way to tell a story within this genre, is through the use of inanimate objects--things that people leave behind. By using things such as graffiti, trash, overflowing ashtrays, a tip left on a table or just a dirt smudge around a light-switch--these things are evidence of someone having just been there. It allows the viewer to create a scenario in their own mind as to what just happened there.

If I’m trying to develop a narrative, it’s more interesting to do it in a locale where there’s more latitude for people’s behavior. Our imaginations can conjure up many more scenarios happening on Times Square as it was years ago, compared to the Disneyesque environment it’s been turned into.

St. George Hotel, 1994

Q: You write about the Peepworld piece that it is "a fictional 'porno palace,' similar to those which existed before Mayor Giuliani cleaned up the neighborhood, and before Times Square was developed into the family-friendly theme park environment it is today." What is it about this old Times Square that you miss?

A: Since I haven’t lived in New York for several years, I have been able to observe the city changing in leaps of time. I’m usually in the city at least once a year. Each time I’ve gone back over the last ten or fifteen years I see more and more of what I remembered about the city disappear.

Paving over, or decorating over, a city’s problems does not solve the problems. Visiting Times Square when there were hookers and junkies all over was not necessarily pleasant, and at times could be scary. However, that was an accurate representation of a segment of the culture. Gentrifying 42nd street, and having it mimic a theme park does not eliminate all those problems. It just creates an artificial environment for people to come and buy tee-shirts. The problems still exist, they’re just tucked away someplace where tee-shirt sales are not impacted.

Peepworld, 2007

Q: You were born in Brooklyn and now you live in LA, yet most of your work continues to be of New York. With so much of New York cleaned up, what in the city inspires you these days?

A: After spending eighteen months building Peepworld, I wanted something of a more “gentle” subject matter to build. That’s when I built Hopp’s Luncheonette (2008). It was loosely based on some of the neighborhood ‘mom and pop’ candy stores I remembered from growing up in Brooklyn. It became my homage to the work of Edward Hopper, when I realized how much his painting Early Sunday Morning (1930) influenced the design of my fictitious environment.

I’m presently finishing up a subway environment that has taken me eighteen months to build--the most intricate piece to date. After that---I have been thinking quite a bit about those beautiful old movie theaters I used to go to that are no longer standing, or (probably even worse) have had their art deco marquees torn off and converted into tee-shirt emporiums.

Hopp's Luncheonette, 2008

Spend more time in squalid Times Square:
Show World
Adult Bookstores
Parisian Danceland

Secret Peeps


EV Grieve said...

Wow... this is incredible work....

Melanie said...

Wonderful interview. Great piece.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

A seedy Ratso Rizzo walking with Joe Buck and shouting at a taxi cab, "I'm walking here!"

I love it!

Bowery Boogie said...

great interview. bravo.

VisuaLingual said...

Oh, wow. Incredible work, and an incredible document of a moment in time.

BrooksNYC said...

Am awestruck by this! Great interview.

I still can't quite believe how little time it took to vanquish the old city.

Melanie said...

@ Mykola--that impression has been in my mind since I saw Midnight Cowboy. I need to see this movie again!!

VICTOR said...

Oh man, these are so awesome

Unknown said...

This guy is an absolute master first class in minatures...I wish he could do Jack Dempseys Place on 49 and Broadway and the pre seasure Kenmore Hotel on 23rd st. with the old blue neon sign on the outside and Hana's Deli down stairs. Classic stuff!!!!