New York

Joe Fig

Plus Ultra

Dollhouses are funny things. Introduced in northern Europe in the seventeenth century, they were originally used by rich women to manage their households, providing a virtual view of the premises. Later, they became more akin to little museums or cabinets of curiosities. More recently, they’ve become toys with an edge of macabre kitsch. Joe Fig’s recent sculpture borrows heavily from the dollhouse idiom, co-opting the God’s-eye perspective, the miniaturization, and the implication of a narrative (here, art historical), all played out on a tiny stage in a parallel world that mimics our own.

In the past, Fig has made painstakingly accurate models of artists’ studios—Constantin Brancusi’s, Willem de Kooning’s, Jackson Pollock’s—which included little artist figures, further stoking the dollhouse association. For his recent show at Plus Ultra, he narrowed his focus and mostly eschewed the dolls, homing in instead on painters’ studio tables. This time the obsessively detailed models, housed in Plexiglas boxes that functioned like tiny vitrines, represent in minia- ture the work surfaces of Matthew Ritchie, Julie Mehretu, Amy Sillman, Chuck Close, Dana Schutz, Karin Davie, Philip Pearlstein, Barnaby Furnas, and other painters. (Two other works featured the opulent Long Island studios of April Gornik and Eric Fischl, in toto, figures included.) On these tables are the tools of the trade, arranged according to the artists’ proclivities. The table becomes a synecdoche for the studio and the work. But, except in the Fischl and Gornik studios, we don’t see any actual paintings; Fig’s project may tempt some viewers to track those down elsewhere.

Previously, Fig’s replica studios, complete with figures caught in the act of artmaking, ran the risk of being too cute (Awww, look at the little Brancusi!). In the new work, this is still a problem (Look at those tiny paper towels! And the itty-bitty paintbrushes!), but one that Fig partially solves by providing an audio accompaniment in the form of an interview with each artist, relayed via headphones connected to the base of each sculpture. In these discussions, Fig asks each of his subjects a series of questions, from how long they have been in their current studio to “Please describe a typical day, being as specific as possible.” The responses provide a day-in-the-life narrative but also function as shoptalk, as conversations range over the arrangement of the room, preferred brands of paint, how many paintings are worked on at a time, and the ways in which a tool can become a talisman or a fetish. Fig ends with larger questions like “What advice would you give a young artist that is just starting out?” (Ignore the market and be true to yourself is the general line.)

What separates Fig’s project from interviews in the Archives of American Art or the Paris Review is the visual component, naturally, but also the fact that Fig’s exchanges aren’t explicitly anthropological or historicizing. Fig’s work hinges on the cult of the artist—why else would we care what Dana Schutz does during the day?—but he undercuts the notion that what an artist does is inherently fascinating by showing how the daily life of a painter can be as programmatic and mundane as that of an accountant. For while the painter’s table might look to some like the altar where art is consecrated, here it is literally downsized and accompanied by commentaries that bring the process back to earth, resulting in a kind of art for artists that also feels like a public service, or a reminder that art (painting in particular) often begins with just showing up at the studio.

Martha Schwendener