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Los Angeles
Roland Reiss
Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)
490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101
September 18, 2011 - January 8, 2012

Summary of Exhibition Checklist
by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

Summary of Exhibition Checklist of “Roland Reiss: Personal Politics: Sculpture from the 1970s and 1980s”: Twenty-five dioramas, each generally a couple feet square, raised individually on pedestals to easy viewing height. One actual-size 1970s-era American living room diorama of over three hundred discrete and detailed particleboard objects (unpainted, monochrome sculptures), ranging from a full-scale sofa, coffee table, lamp, television, bar with stools, and bookshelf with books to a pack of cigarettes, TV dinners, hamburgers, coffee cups, a hammer, a gun, a banana, keys, a litter box, an aquarium, a paint brush, paint tubes, slides, and dogbones. The long Hockney-leaved houseplants are my favorite.

The actual-size particleboard living room is called Castle of Perseverance and is from 1978 when it was first shown at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art). That was a year after the artist, Roland Reiss, had a solo exhibition of some of his dioramas, the ones from the Dancing Lessons series, at LACMA. And it was three years after he showed dioramas in the 1975 Whitney Biennial. Anyway, the Castle of Perseverance is being shown again now in 2011 and I think it must look quite different these thirty-three years later. Mostly because of the whole new realm of advanced modeling software, laser cutting, prototyping, and 3D printing, which Reiss’ work presciently, uncannily anticipated. Did you know that one day we—you and I—will have 3D printers at home instead of just wimpy 2D printers and when we need a fork or an ashtray we’ll just print one? If the handle breaks print a new one. I wonder if I’ll be able to smoke a 3D-printed cigarette?


Castle of Perseverance, before being the name of a life-size, hard-edge living room sculpture in an Oldenbergian vein, was first the title of a fifteenth-century English morality play and the oldest known vernacular play (author unknown). In it, Humanum Genus succumbs to temptation of the Seven Deadly Sins but is redeemed like a good Christian by repentance and virtue before he (Mankind) is struck down by Death at which point his eternal fate is weighed in the balance. In a happy but joyless ending, Mankind is pardoned, as if being pardoned is the highest fate we should strive for.


Mankind is not in the Castle but there are people in the little dioramas, and when people aren’t there symbols of them are.


These little dioramas want too much for me to tell stories about them. And so I will not.

They assume I will narrate them; they take narrative for granted in a way similar but not the same as illustration. I feel manipulated. Aren’t they a little needy? So cute, too cute in their miniaturity. And that makes me not want to participate in the countless tales, murder mysteries, and science fiction short stories suggested by their hyper-narrative scenarios. No, I’d rather stick to the stillness of each tableaux, not as a frozen moment within some dramatic plot, but as a permanent relational scheme.

My problems with fiction—especially composing it.

My fiction problem may partly have something to do with an uneasiness about the aerial vantage. The view from above. Makes me queasy. I guess third person is just too know-it-all; I could never relate to taking that position.

That must also be one of the reasons why it is so much easier to write about Reiss’ life-sized diorama that we walk through and look face-to-face at than all his fantastic little miniature ones we look down on, even though the smaller ones are more fun to look at.

I feel so much more at home in the fictive than in the fictional.


Now, when the aerial vantage is viewed after enough time to be considered history, it’s a different (better) matter because the hyper-narrativized miniaturization and spatial perspective turns out to metaphorize temporal perspective and historical distance. Part of what I like about these picky little boxed-in dioramas is their age, which they wear so well.

Which brings up questions of age and age-appropriateness regarding a grown man making dollhouses. Which also brings up sub-questions of gender. Granted, these are some very grown up dollhouses, so grown up they are (plexi)glass-housed. So grown-up they are aren’t houses at all and often aren’t even domestic but they still have middle-class romance marred by middle-class vice and spurred by middle-class fantasy. So grown up they are often violent (in an overt or repressed way) and just as often they are set in the pants-suited world of corporate offices as in Reiss’ Adult Fairytales, 1983-84. Or his Morality Plays, 1980, which are incredible surrealizations of domestic stage sets. There are even Dancing Lessons, 1977-79, expanding that adolescent girl rite of passage into slightly Escher-esque pop compositional conundrums.

Which brings up questions of gender again.

I’m just pointing out that these dioramas are made between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, firmly and deeply in the sway of the art world’s feminism assimilation.

The craft aspect of Reiss’ dioramas links not only to feminism but also to outsider art, which has its own links to feminism and the reappraisal of marginalized practices. Craft is why dioramas of all sorts seem to want so badly to signal hobby, amateur, tinkering, hoarding, private obsession, and the kind of mania that is pieced together in the crowded shadows of a garage, attic, or basement.

More than the narrative of each dramatic tableaux, each illusionistic representation, I am interested in the narrative possibilities of the dioramacist himself—as character, as author, as type, as cipher for the miniaturizing and narrativizing impulse (sublimated or transposed self-reflection and social critique?), as a figure for fanatical recreation.

Take Jericho “Coco” Fitzsimmons, for example.


What is the difference between a diorama and a terrarium? Does it have to do with living things? Because it’s not always as clear as one might think what those things are. Representations, figurines, miniatures, or painted and carved likenesses may not be alive, but they’re not totally dead either. What about the things of living, the stuff of space—aren’t those a little bit living too?


Finally, looking out on the gallery, at the end of the morality play there is encasement, entombment. We know that each Pandora Plexiglas box is a prism but is it also a kind of prison? If it seals and preserves either it is meant to keep things out or it's meant to keep things in. Either way I’m curious why.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

Top Image: Roland Reiss, F/X: In Search of Truth, 1990, Mixed Media, 14 x 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Posted by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer on 12/6/11 | tags: diorama mixed-media installation

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