If you've ever had the misfortune of mentioning dioramas in my presence, you can imagine how excited I was to interview Tom Foolery. Like him, I love tinkering with tiny things in time-consuming ways. This gave us a lot to talk about during a recent interview.
One of the things we talked about most was what awesome dioramas Montana seemed to have when we were growing up, albeit some decades apart. We both adore the battle dioramas in the Little Bighorn interpretive center (on a recent visit, Foolery was pleased to see how little they had changed since his childhood), and each of us was inspired at a young age by equally memorable miniature scenes on view far from the Custer crowds.
Mine was at the Yellow-stone County Museum in Billings: The awe-inspiring diorama of 16 Crow warriors riding their horses over Sacrifice Cliff in a desperate gesture of self-sacrifice during a smallpox epidemic. Foolery's was in another small history museum, an exhibit demonstrating how electricity arrived in rural Montana. The miniature light-up cabin in the middle of a miniature prairie spoke to an incipient love of models and miniatures.
Both examples, I think, illustrate how anything with a diorama involved is often the most memorable part of a museum trip. They also shed light on the unusual place the medium occupies at the crossroads of art and education. Dioramas, most often seen in history and natural history museums, are typically there to educate. Any fine- or folk-art qualities they embody are secondary, subsumed by the demands of the host discipline. I feel like we unconsciously demand a lot of museum dioramas and dioramists—realistic perspective and lifelike badger-eyes and convincing splashes of fiberglass water—without giving them the proper credit when they succeed. Then again, perhaps a diorama only truly succeeds when we forget somebody made it.
In any case, peer into one of the 17 repurposed gumball machines and tabletop diner jukeboxes in Foolery's Vendorama Series and before long you're too caught up in the act of voyeurism to think about much else. Each scooped-out vending machine contains a tiny street scene centered around a street-level storefront, typically an art gallery, in a composited three-dimensional neighborhood of photographed backgrounds and exquisitely detailed buildings. Here a dog lifts his leg on a car, there a man slinks off into a dark alley, everywhere miniature art patrons mill around looking at painting and sculpture. Art flourishes on the upper floors as well, where every ninth resident of the typical Tom Foolery tinytown seems engaged as a painter or nude model. Delightful surprises abound—and a few naughty ones as well. Here you are encouraged to play the Peeping Tom. You half expect Grace Kelly to come up behind you.
One thing you can't miss is Foolery's disdain for kitschy cowboy art, as depicted in the dozens of fingernail-sized paintings in the miniature galleries, all of which in turn have threadbare clichés or bald parodies for names: the Last Chance, the Gold Dust, the Happy Heifer, the Giddy-Up Gauche, the Boot Shill. Far from diorama for diorama's sake, the Vendorama Series is a sustained lambasting of "cowboys and critters" art and artists, tongue-in-cheek but no less biting for that. After growing up in Montana and places around the West, Foolery wound up in San Francisco for 17 years, where he says he gained an insider's perspective on the fatuousness of the commercial art world. Before moving back to Montana in 1993, Foolery says he'd had it with modern and postmodern but still wasn't quite prepared for the horrors of contemporary Western.
"I guess I knew it was going to happen," Foolery says of the surge in bourgeois cowboy kitsch, "but I'd forgotten how much bad Western art proliferates in places like Montana."
Since building his first "miniature environment" into the dashboard of a Nash Rambler some three decades ago, Foolery's art has gradually transitioned from painting and assemblage to miniatures almost exclusively. In a previous series, old theater spotlights provided the appropriate miniature stages for Foolery to present pieces that both encouraged and commented on voyeurism. The vending machines in the latest series, Foolery says, gave him more space to mount his pieces—he uses the term to describe both the miniature human theater in the galleries and the boxes themselves—with a commensurate increase in voyeuristic possibilities.
Foolery makes many of his tiny components from scratch, but adds that his work has evolved over time to conform to 1:87, or "HO" scale, the prevalent gauge in model railroading, which has opened up vast online storehouses of miniature props. Even with off-the-rack scenery, though, Foolery concedes there's no shortage of meticulous and time-consuming work to do on it. His buildings—many of them vaguely familiar, though perhaps misleadingly so—seem to have dispositions, if not personalities. August and dignified, many with ghost signage clinging to their painted brick skins, the 19th century structures seem saddened by the tawdriness of all this new commerce: crummy galleries and family fitness centers throwing open their doors with only crummy paper banners for signage. The sheer volume of advertising information in each piece makes these old downtowns the rivals of sign-crazy North Reserve.
But miniature humans are still the main attraction. For the most part, Foolery's tiny people do not appear perpetually frozen on the verge of the kind of telegraphed melodrama or physical comedy you'd expect as they act out their tiny narratives. Few of their poses seem staged or intentional. For the most part, they look free to wander in and out of the miniature buildings like so many First Friday strollers. When I ask whether Foolery, spending as much time with them as he does, is privy to richer inner lives and more complex personal interactions than even the closest observer can extrapolate, he laughs. He says he puts some thought into what characters might be thinking, but he doesn't get lost in the politics and melodramas of his miniatures.
He's happy if other people do, though. In fact, it's the whole point.
The Missoula Art Museum presents Tom Foolery's artist reception and gallery talk for the Vendorama Series Friday, Feb. 5, at 5 PM. Free.