From grotty hotel interiors and graffiti covered subway trains to Village Cigars and vanished Times Square porn palaces, Alan Wolfson’s masterly crafted urban miniatures are vivid reminders of New York past.
Over the last twenty years Wolfson has created his dioramas with painstaking detail. The Lilliputian props, including the porn palace’s butt plugs and the individually wrapped dildos, the half eaten sandwiches and the over flowing ashtray have all been created entirely from scratch.
Don’t Panic spoke to Alan Wolfson about his extraordinary scenes of the city.
How did you get into the world of miniatures?
I was always building things when I was a kid. In elementary school, they used to assign projects to build models of things into shoeboxes; the grocery store, the classroom, the police station. I loved doing that sort of stuff, it was my art form.
As an adult I continued building small scenes, only I gave up the shoebox format. I studied scenic design for theatre when I was in college. At some point I realised that I got more satisfaction building the models of the stage sets, than I did from working on the actual productions.
How do you decide on the content of a piece?
Much of my work reflects back to my memories of growing up in New York. I’m drawn to much of the architecture which no longer exists there because of urban renewal.
I seldom do a piece which is an exact representation of an actual location. They’re usually combinations of existing locations along with places that only exist from my imagination. I usually ‘stage’ the environment in the 1970s to 80s. Those were the decades just before they started tearing apart the city to rebuild. During those decades there was also a lot of graffiti and interesting advertising graphics that contribute to the piece’s narrative.
Your dioramas definitely give the viewer a sense of being a voyeur. What is it about looking into these environments that you find so appealing?
There is a voyeuristic sense to some of my work. The pieces that get the most attention, and the ones that evoke the most response are definitely the ‘edgier’ ones. These are representative of environments that many people might not feel comfortable examining in real life. I think my work provides a safe opportunity for the viewer to stop and spend time looking at a location without having to worry about any of the possible consequences of being there in reality. I’m not sure if it’s voyeurism or simple curiosity, but I’ve had some of the most unlikely people tell me how much they liked my porno palaces.
How do you get so much accurate and intricate detail into the work? Can you tell me about the making process?
My ‘rule’ is that everything in the work is completely built from scratch. I don’t buy anything readymade - if you see a brick wall, each brick is individually glued onto the wall piece by piece.
Almost everything you see in my work is fabricated from plastics. Acrylic (Plexiglas) is used for anything structural, such as walls. Most of the detail you see is from styrene, which is a softer plastic that is easier to cut and shape. What you’re looking at are actually thousands of pieces of plastic glued together. In certain instances I would use brass rods soldered together to build things such as handrails. The signage and graphics are produced in Photoshop. Of course if I’m doing, say a subway station circa 1978, I’ll find the appropriately dated wall posters online and alter them in Photoshop to suit my purposes.
All the lighting is built into the piece. I approach lighting the piece in the same manner you would if you were lighting a stage for a performance. I use many different kinds of lighting; incandescent, fluorescent, fibre optics and for the past few years LEDs. The lighting is just as important to the scene as is the architecture and detailing.
How long does it take to complete a piece?
A major piece usually takes anywhere from three to nine months to complete. The two biggest projects I’ve done to date are Peepworld and most recently Canal Street Cross-Section. Each of those pieces took 18 months, working full-time to complete.
Why have you omitted people from your scenes?
I never include people because I think that people in miniature are a visual distraction. It draws the viewer away from what they’re looking at. It reminds the viewer that they are looking at something that is not real.
Do you conjure up imaginary scenarios involving people that may have inhabited the environments?
I try to give the viewer enough information to form their own narrative as to what has just gone on in that environment. To use the theatre as an analogy once again; I’m giving you architecture (the set), and props (the inanimate objects that inhabit people’s lives), and lighting.
Things such as a half-eaten sandwich, an overflowing ashtray, a tip left on a table are the props. Things such as the graffiti on the wall and the trash in the street are the set dressings. The lighting sets the mood. I hope to give the viewer enough information with these items to form a narrative scenario in their own mind as to who just left that restaurant, and maybe where they’re off to now.
Very often, if I’m designing an interior of a room where someone lives - I’ll think about who that person might be, why they live in that particular environment, and what type of items they would have there. I spend quite a bit of time determining the appropriate props and where to place them.
Why do you think you’re drawn to the portrayal of seedier environments?
I find those locales more interesting than others. In terms of formulating a narrative, there’s a lot more latitude for scenarios to play out in Times Square, the way it was before the rebuild, than there is now. The new Times Square is a very homogenized environment.
A sense of nostalgia also seems to pervade your work, are you trying to recreate a side of New York that no longer exists?
As it’s said: ”there’s no going back”. Since I haven’t lived in New York full-time for several years, I get to witness the changes there in larger increments. Whenever I go back, usually at least once a year, I see more and more huge apartment buildings that have replaced the three and four story ones that were there originally. This has caused a huge population boost in many neighborhoods, and has greatly taxed the infrastructure there. A few times I have built a piece that was based an existing structure, only to find out that it had been replaced by a parking lot or an apartment building. I am somewhat nostalgic for what used to be. I am not trying to recreate it - only to document it.
With Giuliani's extensive efforts to clean up New York, what inspires you these days? and are you sad about the changes?
I understand why Mr. Giuliani set out to clean up New York. However, I think rather than dealing with the social problems that needed attention, they were just relocated from areas such as Times Square to places where they weren’t quite so apparent to the tourist trade.
I still do find much that inspires me about New York. The non-stop energy, the cultural opportunities, and the excitement generated by the city are unique. Combine those things with my nostalgia---yes, I’m still inspired by New York City.
See more of Alan Wolfson magnificent miniatures at alanwolfson.net