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Small Worlds

The Palo Alto Art Center offers new twists on the ancient form of dioramas.

Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber’s archival pigment print “Anatomy Classroom” will be part of the Through That Which Is Seen show.


The word “diorama” probably conjures up childhood memories of visiting natural history museums and viewing antiquated, dusty displays of taxidermied animals and cavemen battling saber-toothed tigers. Dioramas have come a long way since then, and, according to Palo Alto Art Center curator Selene Foster, many contemporary artists are using the format with both traditional and new media.

An exhibition at the art center from Jan. 20 to April 18, entitled Through That Which Is Seen, features artists working in sculpture, photography, painting and video who, in some manner, employ dioramas to tell a story.

Several years ago, Foster included a diorama in an exhibition and “people absolutely loved it,” she says. By researching artists online and at art fairs in other states who were working in this manner, she discovered that, “we all want to be drawn into a totally different universe and be swept away.”

For Scottish artist Charles Young, this means creating intricately designed miniature buildings out of wood and watercolor paper. For Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz, it involves placing tiny figures in ominous situations inside snow globes. Native American artist Wendy Red Star makes a humorous and satirical statement about the stereotypical depiction of indigenous people in her pigment print series, Four Seasons.

Dioramas date as far back as 2600 B.C., when they were used by Egyptians as part of burial rites, yet they remain relevant today—perhaps owing to a fascination with the careful craftsmanship and attention to detail. In a world full of distractions, the scenic representations compel us to stop and take the time to closely observe. In Through That Which Is Seen, thanks to the wide range of media on view, there is something for everyone and every age.

Says Foster, “I think even people who don’t regularly go to museums will find themselves drawn to this show.”


Originally published in the January issue of Silicon Valley

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