A few days after we were all urged to shelter in place, artist Nicole Duennebier was scrolling through Instagram and came across a new Boston gallery with a timely name. The images in the feed captured the morning sun pouring through a leaky skylight and a wall of water-stained windows casting its light on exposed beams and painted brick. It seemed like the perfect space to show large works — charming, unassuming, full of history. Definitely the kind of space Duennebier would hope to show in, so she was surprised she’d never heard of it.
But the new gallery isn’t exactly as it appears. Local artist Eben Haines created the Shelter in Place Gallery as a way for artists to show their work despite pandemic related closures and stay-at-home orders. These large scale pieces in the gallery are in reality, just a few inches tall. The gallery and all of the art in it are built on a scale of 1-to-12, so one inch equals one foot. The illusion is astounding.
“It blew me away the detail he put into every aspect of it,” Duennebier says. It took her a day to realize that the gallery was a model when she saw a photo of his hand moving a tiny chair inside the space.
“How long could Eben have gone out without telling anyone?” She wonders. “It’s teasing the art world a bit, I think — its fetish for vast clean spaces in these expensive locations. We have these expectations that that’s the gallery you want to be a part of. And it’s interesting that it not only can be faked convincingly but faked in a beautiful way as well.”
Eben is preparing his own show for the Shelter in Place Gallery, which he says should be ready in mid-May. He’ll present two or three “big” paintings, about 8 by 9 inches. He says they’re about our world now, and how with the pandemic, nothing really stops. “My work, in general, is about the ills of capitalism and the constant pressure for all of us to build our own empires which are really just a way for corporations to sell us stuff.”
Haines has presented the works of about a dozen artists since he began offering exhibitions last month. He says so far he hasn’t turned anyone down, and he’s been humbled by the creativity and level of detail in the submissions he’s received.
“I needed to wrap my head around a new way of making things, and I realized that pretty much every other artist is in the same boat."Eben Haines
He first created the model about a year ago after late winter fatigue set in and he couldn’t motivate himself to get to the studio. He thought the small space would provide a playful way to generate new work, but he put the idea on hold when the nicer weather arrived. Then the pandemic hit and upended everything, including the art world. Galleries were shuttered and he had to vacate his studio to practice social distancing.
“I needed to wrap my head around a new way of making things, and I realized that pretty much every other artist is in the same boat,” Haines says. “So I decided to make it a gallery and open it up to people so they can make tiny things at their desk when they can’t make their normal-sized things in their studios.”
Duennebier, whose detailed works are reminiscent of the Dutch masters, says she used the opportunity to be even more indulgent with the style. The idea of making tiny pieces to be seen to scale in such an intentional digital-first platform excited her, and she created her five works for the show in two weeks.
“If you go by the dimensions of the gallery, it’s not only the smallest work I’ve ever made but the largest work I’ve ever made,” says Duennebier. “I wanted to make it look like the type of paintings that that type of gallery would have.”
Perhaps none of the works take as much advantage of the scale as Wilhelm Neusser’s "Untitled (Large Bog for SIP).” Neusser says in these loud and challenging times, he wanted to create a painting he could walk into. Unlike many of the other artists who’d created work specifically for the gallery, Neusser recycled an old piece, cutting a 14-by-20-inch square out of a 47.2-by-39.4-inch canvas painting.
“I was drawn to the idea of cutting something out and making it smaller in my space, only to make it huge in Eben’s space.”
The painting of a Cape Cod cranberry bog as the late setting sun disappears behind the clouds takes up an entire wall in the gallery, draping onto the floor like Katharina Grosse’s curtain-like painting at Boston’s MFA that inspired the piece.
Neusser says that even though he doesn’t exist at that scale and can’t be in the physical space with the painting, Eben’s attention to detail allows him to be tricked.
“It’s almost like it’s a little bit of a drug — you’re going on a trip so to speak. The illusion is really satisfying.”
“Since so much stuff is out of our control, maybe we like to play god in this little space.”Wilhelm Neusser
Shelter in Place reveals that we never really grow out of our fascination with dollhouses and model trains, which Neusser says have always enticed him.
“Since so much stuff is out of our control, maybe we like to play god in this little space.”
Scrolling through the gallery’s Instagram feed, it’s hard not to feel hypnotized by this meticulous world of high culture in which many yearn to be accepted. But on this scale, it’s all so accessible, and still not quite for us. A large hand enters to move around furniture, like Alice standing before the tiny doorway to Wonderland.
In times like these, it’s easy to lose a sense of scale, feeling like everything is out of our control and crashing over us. The deeper beauty of Shelter in Place is that it reminds us that like a dollhouse, the things that are easiest to replicate are an illusion, like the roles we play and the power structures we blindly adhere to. But the intentionality of Shelter in Place and the excruciatingly detailed work it showcases inspire authentic serenity and joy. It’s not artifice and it can’t be faked.
When asked about the future of the gallery, Eben says he plans to keep it running for as long as it seems necessary, presumably not until people feel safe gathering in real spaces. After that, he’s not sure.
For Neusser and the other artists, it’s been the pandemic drug they didn’t know they needed. “It’s like we’re trying to create worlds that are better than the one we are in,” says Neusser. “It’s an act of healing.”