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A detail of Artist Colony (Gardens), the fifth in Adams’s series of works depicting utopian artists’ colonies. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A detail of Artist Colony (Gardens), the fifth in Adams’s series of works depicting utopian artists’ colonies. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

A strange sense of anarchy lurks in artist Kim Adams’ miniature worlds Add to ...

When I was a child, I had a strange hobby. Lying in bed at night, I would imagine that my bedroom was not bedroom-sized at all, but, rather, matchbox-sized. This self-induced hallucination offered a kind of comfort. A place so small was a secret place. It was snug and safe, with everything in its proper spot. Books like The Flower Faeries or Mary Norton’s The Borrowers were favourites, deepening my appreciation of the pleasures of extreme tininess and the strange feeling of sanctuary that seems to bloom in contemplating such dramatic disjunctures of scale.

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Visiting Kim Adams’s two new works at the Art Gallery of Ontario this week – displayed by the gallery in celebration of his receipt of the $50,000 Gershon Iskowitz Prize – I found myself reminded of these private pleasures. Adams has a long history of working with the wee. Earlier sculptures like his Bruegel-Bosch-Bus, for example, married large and small. A recycled Volkswagen camper van encrusted with an elaborate miniature world built from model parts, it suggests transport from an imagined past to an apocalyptic future.

At the AGO, Adams continues his explorations of such visual and somatic shifts. Travels through the Belly of the Whale is a metal space capsule (actually, it’s a shiny new grain silo that Adams has perforated with metal funnels and Bundt pan peepholes) harbouring a hidden world: a tabletop-sized display of the open prairie complete with a wind turbine, a grain silo, crop fields, an ethanol plant and grazing cows. Is this an exit vehicle for some imagined environmental apocalypse? Only the train that moves on its track from inside to out hints at the Lilliputian scene within.

In the Thomson Collection of Ship Models at the AGO, Adams presents another miniature world, the fifth in his series begun in the late eighties depicting utopian artists’ colonies. Here, model-train cars and shipping containers are stacked to serve as high-rise apartment dwellings for creative types going about their teeny-tiny business. Micro crops of corn, tobacco, hops, wheat and marijuana (this is an artists’ colony, after all) flourish on small patches of arable land or atop soil-filled shipping containers tucked in between a campground, a beer garden, a Movenpick cafe, a mini beach scene and a rail yard.

Yet intimations of apocalypses can be found in this orderly cosmos. A zebra grazes amid the cows. Timelines are scrambled, with horse-drawn carts carrying beer casks (another latter-day Flemish touch) appearing alongside a contemporary monster truck rally. Snarling bears are treeing the campers, and, at the periphery of the scene, policemen place suspects under arrest. The mild threat of impending chaos percolates beneath the surface, but the artist has the box-car penthouse view. We glimpse him in his studio, high atop the scene, putting the finishing touches on his latest work of public art: a giant bronzed Popeye head, that figure of improbable pugnacity. (The head was part of a sweet dispenser he discovered in a Toronto candy shop on Queen Street years ago, and saved for the perfect moment.)

Adams says the fascination with toy trains and miniature worlds goes back to his earliest days. “There are baby pictures of me sitting on the dining-room table in the middle of my father’s Lionel train set,” he says, “but I have no memory of that.” His later boyhood fascination with toy trucks led to some radical re-landscaping on the home front. “I kind of made a quarry pit in the back garden, as a place to play with them,” he recalls. “It was kind of an issue in the family, but they let me do it.” His teenage darkroom-turned-drawing studio under the stairs was another treasured hidey-hole, not to mention the cramped ice-fishing shacks of his childhood in northern Alberta. Best of all, though, were the miniature accommodations he discovered aboard trains. Adams has crossed Canada three times this way, the first time on his own at the age of 16. “I loved those spaces then and I still do,” he says. “It has now become something that you know is going to disappear. And you always think: Hey, this is a lot smaller than it was the last time I did this ...”

Kim Adams: Recent Works is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Aug. 11. Adams’s work is also featured in the AGO’s family March Break art camp titled Itty Bitty City, March 9-17, incorporating discovery of the museum’s varied holdings of miniature art.

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