Don't Tread on the Trainset Ghetto

09/15/2010 4:00 AM |

The micro-urban trompe l’oeil photographs of Brooklyn-based 26-year-old Peter Feigenbaum would make a great addition to MoMA’s current The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture show. They could go right between Cyprien Gaillard‘s photo albums of vandalized housing project courtyard sculptures and Hans Bellmer‘s near-pornographic shots of his modular doll. Like that lumpy humanoid, often photographed but never presented in the “flesh,” Feigenbaum’s 70s South Bronx-inspired streetscapes are photographs of copies of non-existent originals. They’re what cultural theorist James Richards calls the “ghetto matrix” or “virtual ghetto,” a fantastic place based, however remotely, on real experiences of poverty, segregation and disenfranchisement. These miniature brownstones, boarded-up buildings, overgrown lots and burned cars are tiny sculptures crafted with trainset hobbyists’ materials and inspired by pop culture and blurry childhood memories. We never see the 50 or so small buildings, just their various configurations set up like tiny Hollywood backlots for illusive street photography.

Whereas Feigenbaum’s previous series incorporated fake backdrops to suggest a total urban environment, the five large-scale photographs in his new exhibition at Open Source Gallery, Trainset Ghetto: Streetsmart (through September 30), were shot on real streets near the Park Slope gallery. The juxtaposition undercuts the preciousness of the virtual ghetto. Instead of a hermetically sealed miniature world, as in Paolo Ventura‘s historical dioramas, the improbable shifts in scale from two-inch tenements to South Slope aluminum siding temper the project’s problematic romanticism of poverty. Feigenbaum acknowledges the works’ voyeuristic impulse in his artist’s statement, citing sources like The French Connection, Grand Theft Auto and Style Wars, and ghetto views glimpsed from neighborhood-bisecting highways. Here, though, his carefully groomed urban wilderness bleeds into a settled and slowly gentrifying real neighborhood. In two of the new photos, the gallery’s glass facade throws a row of the meticulously disheveled little buildings into a confounding play of reflections. Suddenly, the bankrupt city of the 70s and present-day Brooklyn seem fused in some reverse-gentrifying time warp. These jarring shifts in perspective subvert any tendency toward poverty porn, and make for this small show’s biggest breakthroughs.

(images courtesy Peter Feigenbaum, Open Source Gallery)