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Artist Alan Wolfson's exquisite miniature towns

by Collin Friesen | Off-Ramp®

Alan Wolfson's detailed, tiny rendering of Katz's Deli ... note the real quarter for scale. Alan Wolfson

Off-Ramp contributor Collin Friesen reports on Alan Wolfson, who makes miniature street scenes and has a retrospective coming up in Lyon, France.

Some artists go big. Think Kent Twitchell’s huge mural of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra by the Harbor Freeway. Others shrink the world into something you can fit in a briefcase — that's L.A. artist Alan Wolfson.

(Wolfson at work in his workshop. Credit: Alan Wolfson)

At his workshop in Sunland, inside, on various benches, are what you might call the fulfillment of this 66-year-old’s childhood dream.

“When I was a kid I always built things,” says Wolfson. “Like in elementary school I’d build dioramas in shoe boxes — police stations, grocery stores, I always got off on that. My dad was an artist, so I was lucky, I was encouraged to do this. I never thought I’d be able to do this as a livelihood.”

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Wolfson is talking about his miniature street models. They provide extremely — and I mean extremely — detailed looks at the way cities like New York and L.A. used to be in the '70s and '80s. There’s Peepland, a gritty adult theater and sex shop that's about the size of two Kleenex boxes.

From the marquee, advertising “Hot Biker Girls,” to the burnt out bulbs on the Peepshow sign, the details are perfect. Looking at it is like entering a time machine, and it's so well done you feel like you need a shower afterward.

Bend down and look inside, past the adult magazine rack, and notice the tiny dildos on the wall.

“I focus in interiors. I like it when people walk up, glance at the whole piece, and then they realize there’s a view into that… I like it when they find the hidden details.”

I ask him if those “finds” are like Easter eggs. In a way they are, he admits, although he considers it a part of a yet unwritten narrative.

“What I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to give you scenery, lighting and enough props so you can come up with your own narrative…so you can put on your own show.”

Wolfson’s work has a post-Rapture feel. He never features people, except in the shrunken ads and movie posters. He says putting miniature humans in the scenes just advertises that they’re not real, pulling focus from the overall experience of the piece.

Each sculpture takes from three months to a year and half, and Wolfson makes everything, from the smallest brick to the theater napkin dispenser with a single napkin pulled a third of the way out, that sits next to the stack of cups leaning precariously from the counter of the concession stand. It’s art by the millimeter. Not photorealism per se, but a slightly heightened, condensed version of how things used to look and feel.

Wolfson has built more than 100 dioramas in his career. They can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, but he says that’s actually not why exhibitors need to beef up security when they show his work.

“The museum in New York had a security detail,” he laughs. “And the show I’m doing in France, they’re aware of the fact that groups of school children go through. They find it interesting and they want to stick their fingers in there.”

Nineteen of his works will be shown at his career retrospective later this month in Lyon, France at the Musée Cinéma et Miniature.

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