An elderly Jewish watchmaker wanders an emptying Venetian ghetto as a Nazi invasion impends. A man prepares for flight. A limbless doll lies in autumn leaves. What these moments all share is that small models, rather than life-size buildings, construct their setting—a miniature world captured on camera. Through his lens, Italian architect-photographer Paolo Ventura creates different narrative series.
To assemble “Selected Works,” Ventura’s latest exhibition at Columbia’s Italian Academy, experienced Italian curator and critic Renato Miracco pulled pieces from three of Ventura’s previous series: “Winter Stories,” which includes the broken doll; “Behind the Walls,” which imposes humans rather than dolls on the miniature sets; and “The Automaton of Venice,” about the Jewish watchmaker.
A small, two-room exhibition with 16 pieces, Ventura’s show benefits from silent and uncrowded reflection. The frequently dim lighting of his photos lends a melancholy air to much of his work. The nature of the figures, or lack thereof, also creates an atmosphere of solitude. When his photos do contain more than one person, they never interact with each other, standing in different corners or facing different directions. This emptiness and lack of interaction draws attention not only to the figures, but also to the surrounding space. The buildings, the signs, the objects, and the sky seem to have their own souls.
In his exhibit introduction, Miracco recalls the ancient Greek and Roman idea of physical places having spirits, lauding Ventura for his ability to capture “the very soul of places” in his art. Ventura does not hesitate to choose loaded places, like the ghetto of “Automaton of Venice.” The final work of that series, a courtyard littered with overturned personal affairs, has no people at all—only space—but is full of emotion. Family photos, books, coats, suitcases, and a typewriter are strewn on the ground, far from their customary condition and organization. Even without the provided backstory of the Jewish watchmaker and the 1943 setting, the image expresses emotion with the arrangement of objects. The objects represent a history and past, their disarray a troubled present, and an uncertain future for their owners.
This uncertainty applies to the setting as well. Venice, with the evacuation and flight of its citizens, also endures an overwhelming solitude, and within its architecture it holds its own past, present, and future like human memories. In the more recent “Behind the Walls,” Ventura decided to expand from models with doll inhabitants to human models, or one human model—himself. When multiple figures are in frame, he plays all of them, like an art-world Eddie Murphy. This combination of miniatures and men layers his art even further, as Ventura stares out of a box that he himself created.
Ventura’s art succeeds because it prompts contemplation without alienating the viewer. His haunting compositions are naturalistic enough to resonate, yet different enough to inspire a dreamlike sensation. Though Ventura’s models are small, their presence looms large.
The Italian Academy (1161 Amsterdam Ave., between 116th and 118th streets) is hosting this small selection of Paolo Ventura’s works Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. through March 8.
Correction: The exhibit includes two rooms, not one, and 16 pieces, not fewer than 10. Spectator regrets the error.