The Art of Diorama 

Small worlds, after all.

Peer through the plate glass at the frozen animals, preserved foliage, painted-plaster dirt and mud, and glass-surfaced ponds and puddles; the story of nature is presented with the narrative clarity of academic painting, details subsumed into the artistic whole, and specimens seamlessly transitioning from real space into the virtual world of the gently curved scenic backdrops. The 1822 definition of "diorama" by photography pioneer Louis Daguerre as something that one looks through certainly holds for the natural history tableaus we remember from childhood, but it's just a starting point for The Art of Diorama at the Bedford Gallery. This exhibition expands the term to include other aspects of contemporary art-making: small models, faux artifacts, a painted panorama, shrines, dollhouses, peep-show sculptures and installations, and photos/slides derived from these simulacra (or merely appearing to have been). It's a comprehensive show, if etymologically impure, so almost everyone, including kids, will find works of beauty, humor, and meaning here, though sensitive tots may be alarmed by the taxidermic animals, as I was once, by a freestanding hyper-realistic Duane Hanson figure at Stanford Museum.

The 23 California artists shown here fall loosely into three groups: the model-makers, who meticulously reconstruct reality in miniature homages (Joy Broom, Yolanda Garfias Woo, and James E. Pridham); the fantasists, who construct artificial paradises (or hells or limbos) which can be glimpsed only through peepholes, or through photographs or other indirect means (Helen Cohen, John Colle Rogers, Davis + Davis, Randall Heath, Michael McMillen, Lothar Osterburg, Nadim Sabella, Tracey Snelling, Stephanie Syjuco, and Danielle Giudici Wallis); and the postmodern ironists, who create hybrid works, bricolages, that remain thematically contradictory despite their strong visual presences (Lauren Davies, Don Hughes, Misako Inaoka, Jeremy Mora, Kelsey Nicholson, Sasha Petrenko, and Lothar Schmitz). Pridham's "A Safe Harbor" could be seen as typifying the miniaturist's aesthetic; Tracey Snelling's "Filmset #3," the artificer's; and Lauren Davies' "Bird Diorama," the postmodernist's. These categories are schematic, of course, and some artists may fit into several aesthetic glass boxes, while others, like Milton Komisar, who painted a room-sized panorama — oval, like a racetrack — of Emeryville's freeway ramps overhead, and Tim Sharman, whose Doof World paintings, sculptures, and faked photos and press clippings create an alt-universe Magic Kingdom, defy such categorization. Mere words should be seen through, too, when necessary. Through June 8 at Bedford Gallery (1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek). BedfordGallery.org or 925-295-1417.

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