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Electric Cowboy: Jonathan Guggenheim’s Western dioramas are dirt-kickin’ good

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Dioramas were all the rage when I was in the fifth grade. It seemed like every lesson we discussed and every book we read culminated in a diorama project. Rhode Island is the smallest US state—diorama! Mary found the key to the secret garden—diorama! If only I had known Jonathan Guggenheim back then, my “Indian in the Cupboard” project would’ve totally killed.

packet wagon

PIONEERING ART: Guggenheim will showcase his Western-inspired diorama “Packet Wagon,” as part of Enigmatic Vol. 2. Photo, coutesy of Guggenheim

Growing up, Guggenheim watched TV westerns like “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” with his parents. He inherited his dad’s cowboys-and-Indians set and played with it religiously. To this day he’s a die-hard diorama fanatic. If that’s not blatant foreshadowing, call me Suzy Side Saddle. 

Visions of old shoeboxes, junk-drawer trinkets and glue guns tumble through my mind like sagebrush as I enter Guggenheim’s studio in the Brooklyn Arts District. Tucked in the back of the lengthy garage-turned-art lodge hang pieces from his most recent light box series entitled, “Hard Boot.” The multi-sized, three-dimensional western scenes, or “temporal landscapes” as he refers to them, will be showcased at Enigmatic Vol. 2, the second in a series of abstract art shows curated by Blair Nidds and hosted at Canapé. 

Most folks view the American West in a pastoral sense—rustic and undisturbed, like the burnt sienna crayon in a Crayola 64 pack. Not Guggenheim. He knows the West is as epically wild as the iconic men who inhabit it—and their stories cannot be corralled into one genre. All of this is evident in the graphic and cinematic nature of Guggenheim’s series. Every box is outfitted in found mediums like paper, glass, wood, and brass rods, but it’s the light components that make these works a vision of the electric West. 

“To light a scene properly is a big deal,” says Guggenheim, an art director in the film industry. “It adds life and cinematic scope.”

Actually, the series gets its inspiration and name from a film Guggenheim wrote. He dropped me this logline: 

“In a land where the Old West meets the New Digital Frontier, a code-slinging cowboy drops into a developing site for a free drink of whiskey that could lead to a costly choice.” 

Last year the script for “Hard Boot” made it through the first round of Sundance’s screenwriting lab. It didn’t make the final cut, but revisions are in the works. Until its eventual conception, we get to experience the story in diorama form—each box is its very own film trailer.

Take “Packet Wagon,” for instance. The 8 ½ x 45 wood-and-glass case houses the modern version of a high-jacked stagecoach scene. Replacing the iconic horse-drawn Loomis-Fargo wagon is a camper-shelled El Camino, tearing across a desert plain. From the back camper door, a rifleman fires shots past the boundaries of the frame at his pursuers. Long streaks and a smattering of red ink—blood?—run the length of the piece, and a soldered-glass sunset glows in the background. It’s gritty, graphic and playful, like Quentin Tarantino sharing a see-saw with Wes Anderson. 

“I think it’s cool to use the western genre as a story-telling device because it’s so clear that it’s a western,” he says. “It’s like telling the story of something that happened a long time ago, but it’s still happening now.”

He’s expanding his series with those concepts in mind. Where old cinema excels at capturing beautiful 35, 50 and 75mm landscape shots of cowboys with Bell Rock and Monument Valley in the distance, Guggenheim wants to construct locations like it was digitally created on a computer, complete with backlit sunsets, fiber-optic brambles and transparent cacti fashioned from pieces of motherboard.  

West meets tech is not a new idea, he notes. Creators of the Internet often referred to themselves as “console cowboys”—pioneers of the technological field and the settlers of a new electronic landscape. Nowadays, the pioneers claim the Internet West has been completely settled. Personally, Guggenheim’s neo West spurs the notion forward by turning their shit-kickin’ metaphors into blazing works of visual art. It reminds me of those movies where a stranger rides into town, orders a drink, and shoots any motherfucker that stands between him and his first swaller. 

Guggenheim finishes his bourbon and turns out the lights.



Western dioramas

By Jonathan Guggenheim
Enigmatic Vol. 2, curated by Blair Nidds, feat. over a dozen artists
Meet the artists opening:
Wed., July 30th, 7 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Music by Squido, food and drinks
Canapé • 1001 N. 4th Street
Closing: Sept. 29th

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