Through a Lens, Darkly

The hyperrealistic dioramas of Patrick Jacobs

Patrick Jacobs’s Fly Agaric Cluster #3, 2011, a mixed-media diorama behind a two-inch lens.


The whole idea of having a world in the wall is kind of ridiculous,” says Patrick Jacobs, who embeds hyperreal, almost hallucinatory miniature landscapes behind concave lenses inside gallery walls. In his show last year at Brooklyn’s Pierogi Gallery, where his dioramas sell for up to $30,000, green fields and snaking rivers with copses of trees or mountains in the distance echoed the backdrop of the Mona Lisa. But rather than an enigmatic portrait in the foreground,
Jacobs framed subtle patches of irregular grass or mushroom clumps called fairy ring fungus. He painstakingly casts, paints, and positions every blade of grass and flower petal of his dioramas—a process he likens to “building a painting”—in his Brooklyn apartment overlooking Prospect Park.

Jacobs, 40, is interested in how the lens can transport viewers into his fictional spaces. He first experimented with concave lenses, which create an illusion of depth, while studying sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received his M.F.A. in 1999. Inspired by his love of Renaissance landscapes, particularly those of Jan van Eyck, Jacobs started building contemporary takes on the Renaissance idea of painting as a “window on the world.”

He first recreated images from pest-control manuals—views of a kitchen pantry or a garden—that were banal yet darkly mysterious. “The pieces were circular so they fit within the circular format of the eye of the homeowner examining the plot of ground in a section of the garden, watching for things that shouldn’t be there,” Jacobs says. As his technical expertise grew, he went on to make ever more picturesque and improbable landscapes from his imagination, sometimes Edenic vistas unfolding through the gritty prism of a New York apartment window with broken blinds. One such scene, Interior with View of Gowanus Heights (2012), is now on display in “American Dreamers,” at the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina in Florence through July 15.

Lately, the whirling pink flowers of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo paintings have been a departure point, like in a piece Jacobs recently showed in “Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities,” at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. “Eventually, I want to do Fragonard on acid, just one swirling mass of foliage that goes off with no horizon,” he says, “like you’re looking up into the sky or you don’t know where you are.”

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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