Thomas Doyle creates enigmatic, emotionally fraught expressions of the pivotal moments in life and encapsulates them beneath glass domes. Since his early childhood in Grand Haven, Michigan, he has been an obsessive builder of dioramas – bringing tiny universes to existence with whatever tools and materials were at hand. Though more stereotypically adult pursuits later sidetracked him, about seven years ago he decided to put all practical considerations aside and focus his artistic efforts on doing what he had loved most as a child.
Something in the almost ominous mundanity of Doyle's scenarios brings to mind the paintings of Edward Hopper, who also described a middle-American landscape redolent of physical and psychological isolation – the alienation of modern life. Hopper's work, like Doyle's, is stripped-down and blunt, yet mysterious and inscrutable. Often Hopper places the viewer at a voyeuristic angle to his subjects – we are the traveler peeking through windows from a passing train, the unobserved observing from a discreet position across the room – and that same sensation of a violated privacy is nearly unavoidable when looking down upon Doyle's work in person.
"Acceptable Losses" (detail)
In anticipation of his upcoming show, "Collateral Damage," which opens on April 24th at LeBasse Projects, I asked Thomas if he would shed a little light on his process and motivation. For a more detailed introduction to his work, you might also want to peruse my earlier profile of him.
Erratic Phenomena: When you were a boy, your mother often took you to museums, and you developed a fascination with dioramas and models. Do you remember any specific exhibits that made a particularly strong impression on you? What aspects of dioramas most captivated you – was it the containment or the suspension that was most compelling?
Thomas Doyle: One the most striking dioramas I remember was one I saw on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. It depicted Dr. William Beaumont, a surgeon, and a French Canadian named Alexis St. Martin. Martin had been wounded by a musket ball in the abdomen, and Beaumont left the wound open to explore the workings of the digestive system by lowering food into his stomach on a string. The whole scene, string, wound, and all, was there behind glass, and it blew my little mind apart.
Both the containment and the suspension of museum displays intrigued me – they felt more real than a film, more real than a photograph of an actual event. The action was there, frozen in three dimensions, and I always got the feeling that the figures would get up and begin to move at any moment.
EP: You started building shoebox dioramas when you were just three or four years old. Tell me a bit about how making them felt when you were a little boy. What do you think you were trying to capture with those early constructions? Do you recall any books or toys that stimulated your interest in working in miniature? Was there anyone in particular in your life who nurtured and encouraged your artistic inclinations?
TD: My earliest diorama was constructed from a small piece of two-by-four coated in white and blue Play-Doh to represent snow and sea. In the snow stood a cheap plastic penguin. I think I made it in the early morning, before my parents woke up, and I was fascinated by the ability of an environment to bring toys to life, to create a world with the smallest additions. And thus began years of shoebox dioramas, action figures, homemade dollhouses, military models, Dungeons & Dragons figurines, etc.
Both of my parents encouraged my creative side, in their own way – my father sanctioning my banging together scraps of wood in the garage, my mother teaching me to sew and driving me around town to find materials for the many projects I had going at any given moment.
"Well Enough Alone" (detail)
EP: The encapsulation of your mysterious scenarios creates a suspended moment of human memory, which we experience from a godlike perspective, safely outside the volatile emotional atmosphere contained within the glass. In some ways, your work brings to mind Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, in which the dichotomy between individual aspirations and the expectations of others results in the narrator's metaphorical entrapment in an airless dome of depression and despair. Do you ever think of your domes as vacuum chambers – perhaps ones out of which time has been sucked, rather than matter?
TD: Time is a prominent component of the pieces displayed under domes. The glass seals the scene as it is, and in doing so it arrests motion and puts the focus on the present. There is often crucial information missing in the works — the action that comes before and after the scene has been stripped away, leaving you with a small piece of the narrative. I mentioned earlier that I always had the experience, while looking at museum displays, that the figures were about to come to life. I attribute a lot of this to the glass, which adds an element of suspension, as if you were viewing live creatures in a terrarium or aquarium that has been momentarily frozen in time.
EP: In "The Reprisal," the couple who are digging a hole in the woods to bury a pair of bodies are subtly revealed to be interring themselves. Tell me a bit about what motivated this idea, and why you chose to make that macabre twist so inconspicuous.
TD: “The Reprisal” is part of the Reclamations series, which depicts the union and/or isolation of men and women, in order to talk about the elation and despair of romantic love. The man and woman in “The Reprisal” are burying two others – “reprisal,” of course, being an (often violent) retaliatory act. As for the inconspicuousness, many of my works depict people or events at crucial thresholds, leaving their interpretations ambiguous. In these cases, the viewer needs to complete the work, to decipher the narrative. People bring their interpretations of my works to me all the time, and I say bully for them. Often their ideas don’t reflect my own intentions — and that’s fine with me.
"The Reprisal" (detail)
EP: Before you began to make art your profession, you earned your living by writing, and your facility with language is evident in the statements you've made about your work. Do you think this ability to express your intent clearly and with eloquence may also allow you to construct more compelling conceptual architecture and subliminal narrative?
TD: For a long period of my youth, all I really wanted to do was write fiction, and my studies and free time reflected that. In the late 1990s, I turned my attention to visual art, but realized that writing just came naturally, which led to the stream of writing jobs I’ve held — I’ve worked as a journalist, a market research analyst, a medical education writer, and an advertising copywriter. For a short period years ago, I stopped making art and returned to fiction to tell the stories I had in my head, but ended up landing in my current medium. I am very interested in narrative and tone, and I think that when my works are at their best, they often “read” like short stories.
EP: Upon hearing that you lived in New York, a viewer once remarked, "I'm sure there's a Ground Zero in his studio somewhere." Yet you didn't arrive in the City until 2003. Would you say that there is an element of post-9/11 dread in your conceptual landscape? Or would you harken back to a more middle-American, suburban malaise – of the sort depicted by Gregory Crewdson and David Lynch?
TD: Dread has been a major element in my work from the beginning – so much so that I think September 11 didn’t have a major impact in that regard. Though I lived in New York for some time, I was always more interested in towns and houses as the setting for my work. It is fear and anxiety in these places that rings so discordant — and consequently intrigues me so much. Anxiety seems like the cost of entry to live in a city, but take it out to the backyards of America, and things get interesting.
"A Corrective" (detail)
EP: You work mainly with architectural and train scale models and hobbyist's materials, but when necessary you also craft objects and figures from scratch. Each ready-made item is altered, painted and aged before it is included in the finished assemblage. Tell me a bit about how you came to settle on these methods and materials, and what you find most satisfying and frustrating about this medium.
TD: I began my artmaking with painting and making prints, but after a time I lost the zeal for those media. Consequently, I was a little lost for a time, dabbling with other media as I looked for a way to continue making art. Finally, I decided that I should probably just do what made me happiest as a child, regardless of whether I was making Art or not. That’s how I started with the dioramas, and I began years of trial and error just to figure out how to make the work, and how to make it better.
This medium is incredibly focused and meditative, which I adore. I understand why people build model train layouts and dollhouses — just to escape, to lose themselves in another world. I am still fascinated with the medium’s ability to fascinate me. Every medium poses unique challenges, however, and building miniatures and models is no different. Though it never feels tedious, the work is incredibly time-consuming, and I often feel as if I’m struggling to match my output to my list of ideas waiting on deck.
"A Corrective" (detail)
EP: A number of other artists work in similar scale and media, such as Jonah Samson, Frank Kunert, Minimiam, Martin & Muñoz and Helen Nodding. However, most of them concentrate on photography as their primary means of sharing their miniature worlds, rather than displaying their creations as three-dimensional sculptures. How did you arrive at the decision to present your work this way? Did you consider working photographically during your initial endeavors in this medium?
TD: Though I enjoy the photography of many of those artists — and enjoy photographing my own work — I am primarily drawn to the three-dimensional object, which probably goes back to the wonder I felt when viewing dioramas as a child. So when I started working in this medium, I approached it with sculpture as the end product. Photography, for me, began primarily as documentation of the work, but has since become another aspect of my practice. I feel like I really have just begun to explore photography as a medium in its own right – it carries limits of its own, but it also opens up avenues that are difficult if not impossible for three-dimensional work. My upcoming show at LeBasse Projects in Culver City, California, will for the first time feature photographs alongside my sculptures, and I intend to continue working in both veins.
"As You Were #7"
EP: If you could have just one classic artwork from history in your studio, what would it be?
TD: Probably Étant donnés, by Marcel Duchamp. The door, the brick wall, the life-size diorama, but maybe most importantly the fact that it was made in absolute secrecy over two decades. Holy smokes. I’ll take Whistler’s "Nocturne," which is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well, if you’re feeling generous.
EP: History fascinates you, particularly its strange coincidences, contradictions and paradoxes. In some ways, truth can be stranger than fiction. I love encountering history from an oblique angle, rather than head-on – recently, I've been captivated by Errol Morris' blog about the history and ethics of photographic contextualization. I was also acutely moved by Apsley Cherry-Garrard's recollections of Scott's tragic Antarctic expedition, The Worst Journey in the World. What are some of your favorite historical incidents? Are there any narratives in particular that have had a profound effect on you?
TD: The majority of my reading consists of military history, mainly focused on the Second World War, but lately the First World War and the Vietnam War as well. I am most interested in absurdity, paradox, and violence, and a conflict like the Second World War is not lacking in any of those departments. Writers like Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, and Paul Fussell ushered in a new generation of historiography that augmented the facts and figures of divisions and regiments with narrative and anecdote, and, in the abstract, those details drive my work. Slight, almost offhand, stories from war-torn eras conjure an entire world so foreign to our culture today. What are we to make of postal workers publicly executed for stealing chocolate from packages? Or of prisoners of war mistakenly bombed by their countrymen? Absolute insanity. Military history often provides me with titles for my works as well; “Acceptable losses,” “Area denial,” “Displaced persons,” and “Escalation” are among the many words and phrases I have jotted down while reading.
"The Clearing" (detail)
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring at the moment?
TD: Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio listening to stand-up comedy. Lately I am hooked on The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling, and have been slowing making my way through the online archive. Comedy, for a number of reasons, is a comforting presence in the studio for what is typically a pretty lonely pursuit.
"The Clearing" (detail)
EP: What's on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
TD: I have a two-person show with artist Blaine Fontana opening April 24th at LeBasse Projects in Culver City, California, which will feature a lot of new work. Around the same time, I will have a piece in the “Synesthesia” performance in New York. “Synesthesia” functions like a game of creative telephone, with an initial musician, choreographer, visual artist, chef, or some other creative type opening a fortune cookie and making something based on the fortune inside. That work, be it dance, song, painting, or other, is shown to another person, who in turn makes a work based on the piece they’ve just experienced. It cycles through a number of artists until all are displayed and/or performed in one place. I was two degrees from the fortune – I sent sketches for my piece off and have no idea who received it or what they did with the information. Should be interesting.
There are a few other things taking shape on the horizon, but those events are the immediate future. Beyond that, I adhere to the standard procedure: Stay busy.
"The Clearing" (detail)