In “Big City Nights,” there are no roads—no traffic—and everyone keeps to themselves. The ground is clean and clear, and there’s a lot to see: a shiny black Tower Bridge, a tall cherry red skyscraper with pointed spires, a funky gray metabol-ish control hub, glitter-roofed high-rises, and a tubular industrial district with an underground club.
Nearly one hundred mini-buildings strong, “Big City Nights” is the mesmerizing model city grounding Chicago-based artist Michael Madrigali’s exhibition at West Town gallery Mickey. The installation is perched on a display table lit in gray twilight by a fluorescent drop ceiling that seems to beam the tiny cosmopolis into existence. In an adjoining room, four paintings picture views of Madrigali’s “Weird World,” one universe of many imagined in two- and three-dimensions, in this exhibition and Madrigali’s previous presentations at Mickey, “Coast to Coast” (2021) and “Night Kite” (2018).
In any model, everything represents something else. Distances are made real through a multiplier, materials are synecdochical. Models are also sets, diagrams, fantasies, memories, projections—to Tatlin, a manifesto, to Burden, potential energy. There is no shortage of precedents in art or architectural history. Suné Horn’s blog “Architectural Models in Film” catalogs 427 on screen alone, with the observation that the filmic model stands in for legacy or aspiration, villainous scheming, comedic relief, and (occasionally) a murder weapon.
“Big City Nights” feels atmospherically cinematic, an open world ready for something to happen. Stories suggest themselves. In a small clearing, there’s public art: an orange plastic tiger perching on a wiry black frame. More than one building is outfitted with cartoonish open eyes. A few are clad in photographs: a lemur, a fountain, a cloudy sky. The city is ridiculously cute and endlessly mysterious. Its illusion and intricacy are the dream of a trickster god—an obsessive caretaker, whimsical urban planner and ingenious flâneur who knows that scale is all it takes to imagine the loops of a million tiny lifetimes.
Madrigali’s paintings also operate in scales. At the center of each is a small laminated print, either blown up or extended outward to fill the canvas, telescoping a real image and its outsize projection. This is how cities are seen, couched inside an expectation, memory, or sensorium that exceeds the physical. Cities contain other cities. “Hong Kong at Dusk (Weird World 177)” truncates the facade of the Bank of China Tower, appearing in crop like the yonic Crain Communications Building. “Rush Hour (Weird World 179)” is anonymous enough to be Lakeshore Drive, in this or any reality.
“Everything imaginable can be dreamed,” wrote Italo Calvino. “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals everything else.” Conversely, claim the Scorpions in their 1984 song “Big City Nights,” “there is no dream / that you can’t make true.”
“Big City Nights” at Mickey, 1635 West Grand, on view through June 25.