The DeCordova Museum’s “Trainscape: Installation Art for Model Railroads” is a great, wild, flawed 14-artist circus. Your first sights from the gallery entrance are dangling cartoon clouds, a giant gent in a stovepipe hat, mini mountains, cascading white buildings, pink petals floating in midair. There’s lots of motion as four trains clickety-click out from the center of the room and circulate through 12 installations commissioned by curator Nick Capasso and company. My first reaction wasn’t much different from that of the little girl I overheard exclaim, “This is awesome!”
HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE: Joy Wulke’s twinkling landscape recalls Superman’s icy Fortress
A sculpture by Marshfield’s George Greenamyer looms over you — and it seems innocent enough. A man rendered in a folksy style, in what looks like papier-mâché, with big gray sideburns and a black stovepipe hat and suit, sits at a table staring with big blank eyes at a cartoony sack of money. A toy freight train runs between his legs, underneath the table, past a sign that reads, “Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) Chief Rogue of the Railroad Robber Barons,” before looping around and coming back again. Greenamyer paints quotations around the edge of the table: “You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I will ruin you.” And “What do I care about law? Ain’t I got the power?” It’s a blunt thwack, reminding us that trains ain’t all fun and imagination, but also that tycoons had so much money and power that the world could be like a toy to them.
The train chugs on through Fitchburg couple Ellen Wetmore & Jeff “Jeffu” Warmouth’s Land o’ Lactation, winding across a causeway above a milky lake poured between realistically rendered mountains. The peaks, though, resemble breasts, with milky fluid trickling from their tips down to the lake below. The piece was inspired by the recent arrival of the couple’s son. “Shortly after Alexander’s birth,” a wall text explains, “Wetmore remarked that her life was being taken over by her breasts.” This affords satirist Warmouth, who is unable to resist a cheesy joke, fertile territory (“Mozzarella Mine: Danger Falling Cheese”). It’s all too goofy to get me thinking deep thoughts about the nourishing earth, as another wall text suggests, but it does bring to mind the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, which some think were named by a French trapper who thought the peaks looked like a lady’s, uh, tetons. You’ve got to hand it to the French; hereabouts people looked at mountains and saw only the profiles of old men.
Capasso in another wall text explains that the exhibition addresses the “vital issue” of contemporary artists inventing imaginary worlds and alternative realities — partly as an escape from our actual nervous world. It is a significant trend, but the explanation feels tacked on. The triumph of “Trainscape” is its entertaining playfulness. Some big ideas are batted about, with varying degrees of success, but the overriding spirit is fun. There are lots of groaner puns, maybe too many. Still, it’s when the artists here get too earnest and arty that they falter. The contrast with the toy trains makes such attitudes feel particularly precious and pretentious.
The center of the exhibit, from which all the trains radiate out, is Somervillian Chris Frost’s Municipile, a tower of white wooden models of local landmarks like South Station, Harvard’s Memorial Hall, Cambridge City Hall, and the DeCordova. They look like a bunch of birdhouses spun up by a tornado. One train leaves for Inflatable Respirating Cloudscape, by Providence’s Robin Mandel and Gideon Webster. The engine snakes across a mirrored tabletop, triggering a blower to funnel air through silvery hoses to inflate cloth cartoon clouds. Another train weaves through Here, There and Everywhere, by Joy Wulke of Stony Creek, Connecticut. It’s a twinkling landscape of abstract buildings, trees, and hills in glass and mirrors. Water bubbles in a pair of aquariums at one end. Jagged fields of glass jut upright dangerously. It recalls Superman’s icy hideout, the Fortress of Solitude.
Also included: delicately jiggling pink lilypads by Doug Bosh of Providence, light-up Buddhas by Sandor Bobo of Providence, an illustration of a Wallace Stevens poem by Ralph Helmick of Newton, philosophy puns by Mike Newby of South Chatham, a giant blinking circuit board by Edythe Wright of Roslindale, and a pile of ceramic pots and shards by Ahmed Abdalla of Somerville.
“The Center of Cosmic Energy,” which Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have constructed at Tufts University Art Gallery, purports to get you in touch with cosmic energy with the help of giant ancient underground artifacts. (Be warned: spoilers ahead.) The Center is part of the Russian couple’s proposed Utopian City, a model of which is pictured in the first gallery. It looks like a factory combined with electric plant cooling towers and the skeleton of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Signs in the next gallery explain how “throne-shaped” sites channel cosmic energy, particularly when they have a 60-degree tilt. A pair of monitors show cosmic-energy sites: the Egyptian pyramids, Angkor Wat, European cathedrals, Stonehenge, Macchu Picchu, earth-art works like Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field, and the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
“Trainscape” | DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park | 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln | through January 13 | Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, “The Center of Cosmic Energy” | Tufts University Art Gallery | Lower Campus Road, Medford | through November 11
Next is a dimly lit mini amphitheater, with wooden benches ringing the walls. What appears to be a giant clay nipple rests in a bin on the floor. Light shines from two concentric circles on the ceiling above, with metal poles hanging down so that it resembles the bottom of a spaceship with speed lines. A recorded voice — one of those official-sounding museum recordings, or maybe someone from an infomercial — tells us that ancient artifacts were found buried on the property and that researchers believe they were designed to collect cosmic energy.