BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 11 NOV 99
Featured in
Issue 49

Michael Ashkin

BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 11 NOV 99

Size matters and, as every model maker knows, time and power relations aren't the same in miniature space as in real space. Small things can punch above their weight. Michael Ashkin's table top miniature landscapes could easily be passed over as the work of a mildly twisted hobbyist, but hobbyists tend to create idealised landscapes which verge on the picturesque, under the thumb of human control. Ashkin's models, however, celebrate a loss of control: sites where poisonous chemicals bubble up from the ground, where piers and bridges and trucks are caught in sedimenting toxins, where what remains of technology is lost in a tar pit.

The works in this show are smaller than the artist's room-sized tableaux at the last Whitney Biennial. The precariously balanced truck is gone, replaced by abandoned pipes, vestiges of human habitation frozen in a guilty litter tray of soil. The cinematic expanse of the road movie set has become a painterly site to be worked over.

Ashkin often creates his miniatures as table-top arrangements, an approach which is central to their impact. We get a bird's-eye, totalising view that simultaneously looks beneath the surface. They're like pieces of the earth's crust cut out of a map grid, and evoke a kind of absence - miles of identical waste rolling out under the American sky, supported by the surreal corrugations of 3/4-inch exterior plywood. They play expertly on the collision of rational grids mired into the mud of what they're attempting to describe.

Ashkin explicitly references Robert Smithson's huge scale land art projects such as Spiral Jetty (1970) and Amarillo Ramp (1973), but shifts us along the spectrum of scale where Smithson noted 'A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon'. Ashkin recreates the Modern prehistory of Smithson's American landscape but compresses it and boils it down. No. 100 (all works 1999) shows an abandoned swimming pool at a waterfront strip where the tide seems to have receded irretrievably with only an outfall pipe stretching out across the terrain to a long vanished sea. No.87. is a larger, caramelised lake bed mire, made from, dirt, wood and EnviroTex, a soupy, slightly opaque two-pack resin that suggests a Sigmar Polke-like painterly interest in resinated surface texture. Two small wall-mounted works (No. 30 and No.79) are exceptional. One has a pair of semi-trailer trucks stranded up to their axles in a curdled creme brulée of a lake bed, while the other has what seems to be a bridge gantry sticking out of the ground - like one of those tourist postcards of the Golden Gate bridge towers piercing the clouds, only here the clouds are grit, particulates, choking muck.

Ashkin's models work as almost self-sufficient cells of entropy but the photographic works that accompany them struggle harder with their system of description. Whereas the models are numbered like coy post-war American paintings, the photo-grids of scrap yards and swirling sediment fall over themselves to be specific (Honfleur, Normandy, May 1, 1999). Ashkin's reference points are Ed Ruscha's aerial photographs of Thirty Four Parking Lots (1967) with their Tachiste oil streaks, and his car-window height Real Estate Opportunities (1968), in which the sites are ungraspable and forbidding.

Similar in approach to Smithson's series 'Tour of the Monuments of Passaic New Jersey' (1967), Ashkin monumentalises outfalls, kerbsides and sandpits, transforming them into Romantic gorges and mountain peaks - but Ashkin's work, the neo-sublime writ small, is more than Caspar David Friedrich at the truckstop because his work can't be entered.

The artist quotes Alain Ware's belief in 'the eerie relationship that exists between miniature space and death', which seems to be a reasonable connection if you consider Ashkin's downward looking view of the American landscape as a bubbling necropolis. Think of fictional conventions where dioramas and architectural models are owned by a solitary homicidal maniac - Goldfinger's architectural diorama of the Fort Knox he is about to depopulate, or the opening sequence of Paul Auster's novel Music of Chance (1991) where the super-creepy characters Flower and Stone have built their own ideal city with themselves as mayors. That's the sort of deathly precision Ashkin is shooting for here.