Thomas Doyle’s Dreams and Nightmares: Captured in Bell Jars

My Metro North train pulled into the station at Katonah, and with the usual mid afternoon twilight of a New York December day, the streets were starting to light up. The scene from my window depicted a quaint little Christmas town: bare trees ready for snow, shop-windows aglow, small lights outlining triangular rooftops. The scene, in its serenity and quietude, is not unlike one of Thomas Doyle’s miniatures, the strangely haunting, diorama-sculptures, meticulously constructed out of turf, plaster, resin houses and model train figurines.

They borrow a lot from such idyllic scenes as would be found in this little piece of the countryside in upstate New York – green pastures or powdery white snows, isolated houses in the middle of nowhere. Yet his works evoke a much different sentiment than this Rockwellian setting. There is more unrest in them than is at first evident, manifested in the actions of the subjects, trapped underneath the glass domes that characteristically encase his miniatures.

Outside the train station, Doyle is kind enough to wait for me. He drives a practical, blue Subaru, has a ready smile and glasses that make him seem older than he actually is. He introduces himself with an inviting handshake and an unassuming, Midwestern, tilt of the head, as if to say, “Well, here we are.” He used to live in Brooklyn, but like a lot of artists in New York, he left the city to have more studio space. He now works with curators and art dealers in the city who want to show and sell his work there. “It’s like the place wants to outsource its artists, so they have to price them out first,” he concluded, not without irony.

We pull up to his house and go into his studio, where he has arranged some of his pieces for the occasion of my visit. I recognize one of the prints, a smaller version of the artist’s proof Personal Effects, shown earlier this year at LeBasse Projects in Los Angeles. Some of the miniatures are placed around the room, frozen under the glass domes. One piece, still in progress, sits out on an enormous worktable. It’s a landscape, and it doesn’t look like all of it will quite fit under the term “miniature”.

At one end of the room I notice a tripod, mounted with a camera, flash, and light diffuser. “I’ve always photographed,” says Doyle. “It was mostly just for documentation, but I realized I liked the photos so much that I’m playing with it a little more. It’s a different way of looking at what’s going on in the piece and framing the action differently.”

It’s interesting to consider this new perspective on Doyle’s miniatures. Where the viewer is traditionally able to look at all angles of a scene, omnipotently, coming into the characters’ story at the middle, deciphering it with or without their permission, photography partitions the scene into a statically two-dimensional representation. As if Doyle wasn’t meticulous enough, he now goes even further and makes sure to fix our gaze on this or that precise detail.

Doyle’s photographs, different angles on various miniatures, create both a distance between the work and the viewer and a proximity that borders on the voyeuristically invasive. In Personal Effects for example, the macro lens takes us into the scene, places us hiding behind the tree with the man who spies on the picnic, making us accomplices in the intrusion. At the same time, we can never go further, or closer, than the camera has prescribed. The image sits there, just out of reach. The sense of mystery prevails as does the eeriness of the action taking place, like in any of Doyle’s miniatures; the camera’s point of view allows the viewer a closer, more intimate look than he or she can get from above the glass domes that cover them.

This tampering with the protective glass domes is a sign of things to come, perhaps, as Doyle moves into making larger and larger works. “Some [of my current miniatures] can exist without the domes, but it shifts my mindset. My new work, landscape, is an exploration of that.” Except for one piece, commissioned by The New York Times Magazine for their 14 June 2009 issue, titled Infrastructure, Doyle uses suburban or country-style houses set in isolated settings like green clearings, wooded areas, or snowy plateaus. The people in the scenes, train-set figurines which he sculpts and paints as needed, are isolated figures, often no more than two in a piece, encased in, and preoccupied with, the scene at hand. Perhaps the disappearance of the glass domes will usher in an expansion of these insular universes into landscapes and even into communities.

It must be difficult for Doyle to remove the glass domes off his works. It’s evident when looking at any of the domed miniatures that nothing inside the dome is supposed to move (one good way to make Doyle anxious is to suggest picking one of the pieces up and using it as a snow globe). He is fond of preservation, and it shows in the meticulousness with which he constructs, and then packs, his works for shows and buyers. Recently, when two works of his pieces sold in Los Angeles to buyers in Toronto and Pennsylvania, Doyle flew across the country to package them personally. “It’s easier than having to fix it later when for sure it would get damaged in transport.”

The Reprisal 10 x 12 ” diameter (2006)

Doyle’s miniatures are very carefully constructed, extremely well preserved versions of murky memories. He likens them to the images one is left with after waking from a dream: singular, isolated scenes, without reference inside a larger narrative. In Doyle’s opinion, memory happens this way, too. We remember things falsely, with gaps. Scenes are murky and surreal, made up not just of what we remember, but combined with our fears and wishes and desires. Doyle sometimes speaks of his miniatures in cinematic terms. “Each one is like a scene from a movie. Except you don’t know what happened before or what will happen next.” Filling in the story is up to the viewer – like a very ethereal choose-your-own-adventure.

“I’m working larger and larger,” says Doyle. “Doing things I haven’t done before.” The larger scale has so far served him well. Firing for effect, a large, globe-within-a-globe structure, measuring 44 inches in diameter, was chosen to be showcased at the Grand Rapids Public Museum in his native Michigan. I was fortunate enough to see the latest large-scale piece completed: a three-foot structure depicting a house and three individuals surrounded by a 360° hillside of debris. The feeling is less claustrophobic, as compared to the miniatures.

In his larger pieces, it’s more difficult to see what the figures are doing in the scene because they are placed further away from the viewer. The consequence of that is that it allows more room for the viewer to figuratively step inside the dome and become a part of the scene, and create their own elusive and surreal narrative memory.

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