New York

Susan Leopold

John Weber Gallery

Susan Leopold shows boxes that contain miniature scenes visible through small fish-eye lenses mounted on their exteriors. Her subjects are predominantly urban themes such as indoor swimming pools, stairwells, doorways, and windowed interiors. While painstaking craftsmanship and careful lighting make these scenes look realistic, the fish-eye lenses render the typically coherent, rational perspective one expects extremely subjective.

A curious psychology of model making informs Leopold’s project, but her relationship to that tendency is largely unreflective. Ultimately this work falls short to the extent that it places too much emphasis on the sheer quality of its effects and too little on what they might imply. Nevertheless, automatically dismissing the work as coy would obscure its potential.

What prompts people to build models may well be an urge to reduce the world to a manageable scale often associated with childhood. The charm of a tiny village nestled in a model train layout, for example, pulls one into what Gaston Bachelard would call “the reverie of reimagined childhood.” On the other hand, many of the toys that most fascinate children—doll-size cooking utensils, toy soldiers, etc.—are those that most closely correspond, in dissociated form, to the workaday concerns of grownups. A similarly paradoxical logic governs Leopold’s scenarios: the more realistic they look, the more convincing the fantasy. For her, then, a banal New York City skyline seen from inside a loft space works better than a cartoonish fish dramatically pressed up against the sides of an aquarium. All this is not just a case of “the grass always looks greener . . .”; it’s part of a dialectic between dream and reality. Every replicated stain or mark, crack or crevice, or other instance of material deterioration ushers the viewer more deeply into a fantasy world; factors that would ordinarily be irritating or troubling in everyday life prove better able to whisk away cares and fears through their doubled familiarity.

The peephole view of a miniaturized environment links Leopold’s work to the wall boxes that Aimee (Rankin) Morgana used to make. Part of Morgana’s esthetic seemed to involve the construction of a kind of “feminine space” that defied representation and reproducibility through a resistant combination of sound, controlled lighting, movement, mirrors, and infinitesimal detail. Insofar as Leopold’s scenes inspire reverie, they too approximate an ideal of femininity—what Bachelard via Jung calls the anima in opposition to the animus. Bachelard notes (with regret) that “the tension of civilization is presently such that ‘feminism’ commonly reinforces the animus of the woman. . . .” The problem with reverie in Leopold’s work, however, is that it conflates codes of realism with a preexisting state of being, it offers a vision of the built-up world as somehow prior to or undistorted by ideology. That reverie on the whole grows out of idealization does not necessarily invalidate it. But Leopold’s premature utopias may, by offering the world as the product of a dream, encourage the dreamer to forget that his or her subjectivity is largely an effect of language.

John Miller