Art on the Tracks

An artist creates art to plug a hole in the universe. A model railroad builder is more practical. But can there be art without intention?

The Daily Beast

Rod Stewart—yes, that Rod Stewart—is a model train fanatic. This, I admit, took me by surprise, although to deep-dyed Stewart fans and model railroad enthusiasts it’s apparently old news. He has, after all, been at it quite seriously for a couple of decades and a model train fan since childhood. The third floor of his Los Angeles home contains a model railroad layout that measures 23 X 124 feet, and he estimates that he has at least another three years before it’s complete.

I would have known nothing about this had someone not sent me the February issue of Model Railroader magazine with a feature about Stewart’s passion. I laughed when saw the story. And then I began reading about the depth and breadth of his zeal (he has two assistants, he rents an extra hotel room on the road when he’s performing for designing, building, and painting the structures that populate his layout). Then I studied the photographs in the magazine closer—and the more I looked, the more impressed I became. The attention to detail, coupled with carpentry skills and a painter’s eye (he’s colorblind and someone has to check his reds and greens, but still), strongly suggest that here is an artist—a nutty artist, maybe, but an artist.

This begs the question: what is an artist? The answer grows harder to formulate by the day. Someone who makes something out of nothing? Someone who clarifies the world in ways no one had thought of before? Yes and yes, surely, but we know there’s more to it than that. Art, more and more, is a know-it-when-you-see-it commodity.

Are all model train enthusiasts artists? No, but some of them certainly are. You have only to Google model train layouts to behold a wealth of creation. Cities, towns, landscapes—some of them are small, some enormous, some exact replicas of some place and time, and others purely the imaginative creations of their makers. Part of our fascination with this activity has to do with nostalgia, but part also has to do with that far more obscure fascination with making things small, with creating a ship in a bottle, or a small town the size of a suitcase. The people who make these things, the best of them, are curators of the past and creators of totems that resonate in our minds in strange ways. Whenever I stare at a particularly complex train layout, my first thought is always how little the model trains have to do with it. They’re almost an afterthought.

Consider the work of William Christenberry (who, as far as I know, has nothing to do with model trains), the celebrated photographer, painter, installation artist, and rabid collector. Like his mentor Walker Evans, Christenberry not only photographed rusted old signs and billboards but eventually wound up simply ripping them off the buildings where he spotted them and lugging them home to his studio.

Perhaps my favorite Christenberry creations are the miniature versions of buildings he’s obsessively photographed. Some of these buildings are surreal, like buildings in a dream—partly realistic, partly fantastic. Others are exact replicas, and weirdly it’s the replicas, complete with Alabama red clay beneath them that Christenberry hauled from the site of the original buildings, that stir my imagination. These structures—old white frame churches and sheds and houses—have obsessed him for decades and his reconstructed scale models now obsess me.

Whenever I see them, though, I ask myself, exactly how do these constructions differ from a model railroader’s buildings? The attention to detail is the same, the desire to replicate a real object is identical. So why is one considered fine art and the other the harmless pastime of a hobbyist?

The easiest answer is that intention is the defining difference. An artist creates art to plug a hole in the universe, to scratch some aesthetic itch. A model builder is more practical: he—and it’s almost always a he—just wants to flesh out his trackside landscape. But that raises an even knottier question: can there be art without intention?

The same week I received the latest issue of Model Railroader with the Rod Stewart story, I attended a lecture by John Foster at the Metro Show in New York City (the show is a gathering of national art dealers all exhibiting under one roof—so there’s a booth full of Bill Traylor paintings, there a collection of collectible American flags, and elsewhere everything in between, from Philip Pearlstein nudes to old tin toys).

Because I know Foster, I was there in part to offer moral support, but I also wanted to hear what he had to say about collecting. Artist, graphic designer, author, blogger and website curator extraordinaire—he’s a faceted man. He’s an omnivorous collector of fine art, outsider art, vernacular art, and stuff that no one without his discerning eye would ever have thought to call art: family snapshots, gas masks, river rocks, blotter paper, rubber hat molds, lawn ornaments, a paint-by-number portrait of John F. Kennedy that hasn’t been painted. There is no way to categorize what he collects, except to say that it’s John Foster’s collection. And it’s astonishing. In 2005, Art and Auction named him one of the “Top 100 Collectors” in the country.

He introduced himself to his audience, also mostly collectors, by saying, “I am John Foster, and I collect things. Objects. I collect art by people whose names are well known. And objects whose makers are unknown. All of these things hold equal weight in my collection or they don’t stay.”

One of the categories that Foster collects is known among collectors as Vernacular Photography, and in Foster’s case, this means old snapshots that he finds in yard sales, antique stores, and flea markets. These are discarded personal photographs, perhaps because they were duplicates, or because no one remembered the people or places in the pictures (or perhaps because they remembered them too well). The discarders certainly attached no merit to the photographs. But Foster does.

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He doesn’t care about the subject matter of these photographs. “I care only about what is on the square or rectangle in front of me,” he said. Rifling through shoeboxes of old photos set out on someone’s front lawn, what he dubs “the debris fields of bad and mundane snapshots,” he nurses the hope, as every scavenging collector must, “to see anonymous pictures bump into territory owned by Andre Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Sally Mann.”

This is not the same thing that artists have been doing since Duchamp hung a urinal on a wall and called it art. This is not repurposing. The photographs Foster collects were photographs before he found them and they remain photographs. It’s his eye, his curatorial discernment that retrieves them from obscurity and sets these little one-of-a-kind masterpieces before us. Beauty, in his case at least, really is in the eye of the beholder.

“I seek images,” Foster said, “that are arresting for their uncalculated and peculiar power of strangeness and unknowability, images ambiguous or coincidental, dreamlike, oddly humorous, or uncannily beautiful. I look for these accidental mysteries—these images stranded in time.”

As a roadmap for art lovers, I’d rate that excellent advice. Whatever delights your eye—Rod Stewart’s train layout, William Christenberry’s constructions, or the photograph taken by someone who didn’t know what they had—that’s sufficient. While we wait for time to sort it all out, why not have some fun?