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Keeping track of 'Trainscape' proves challenging

LINCOLN - A friend of mine has a model railroad in his basement. He can spend hours at a time laying down track, building hills, and mulling over the placement of shrubs. It's an absorbing, charming little world over which he has complete control.

In "Trainscape: Installation Art for Model Railroads" at the DeCordova Museum, curator Nick Capasso attempts to capitalize on the enchantment of model railroads, setting four loops of miniature chugging locomotives through the landscape of a dozen art installations.

It's an ambitious idea. Model-making, dreaming up alternate worlds, and the expansion of the artist's landscape from two dimensions (painting, photography) into three all offer potent possibilities for installation artists. Unfortunately, it's impossible not to measure "Trainscape" against the detailed little landscapes that inspired it, and it comes up lacking. The installations are too disparate. Running trains through the whole thing doesn't make it cohere, it just makes you want it to.

Ralph Helmick's piece "Fourteenth Way" puts the best spin on the "Trainscape" concept. The title refers to Wallace Stevens's poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," suggesting that the installations offer 12 ways of looking at a model railroad. It's easier, though, to make those leaps within a modernist poem than in a landscape.

In Helmick's gorgeous piece, the track passes between two hills made of paper-thin letters strung on wires; they could as easily represent a flock of birds startled to flight. Language, like the miniature railroad, is another model for reality - so is conceptual art. Helmick gracefully packs all three into one.

It's not easy to strike such a lyrical balance between landscape and conceptual art. Sandor Bodo does it with his comical yet serene "Buddha Express," in which the track passes in one ear and out the other of an illuminated (read: enlightened) translucent Buddha head. Life is suffering, the Buddha taught - not unlike a locomotive running through your head. He also taught nonattachment, and so the train moves on; the head clears.

Mike Newby's "Trains of Thought" tackles philosophy, too, but gets derailed by the demands of landscape sculpture. Newby makes Freud's head out of a red rock, and gives form to Socratic dialogue by carving Plato and Socrates into facing cliffs and running a bridge between the tunnels of their mouths. It's all a bit too literal. On the upside, Newby's is the only interactive element in a show that cries out for it: You can push a button and make a rock spin over Freud's pate. Newby also sweetly builds a smaller railroad within his installation.

Scale is the main issue for Edythe F. Wright and Chris Frost. Wright's "Sharp®town" has tracks running through the ultra-contemporary landscape of a gigantic circuit board. The funny, disturbing contrast of the small train and the huge cathodes and capacitors plays up the relative importance to today's viewers of the digital age versus the age of industry.

Frost's "Municipile" sits at the hub of "Trainscape" linking four separate tracks amid an array of white buildings tilting on a steel armature, as if lifted by a tornado. Look closely and you'll recognize them: South Station, Cambridge City Hall, the DeCordova. But their scales are off. A version of Frost's own house is larger than City Hall. It's familiar, but wonderfully discombobulating.

The artists who focus mostly on landscape often falter; their work seems too simple, like the one-note "Land o' Lactation," by Ellen Wetmore and Jeff "Jeffu" Warmouth, featuring mountains topped with nipples and a lake of pale milk. Robin Mandel and Gideon Webster's "Inflatable Respiring Cloudscape," in which balloon clouds inflate and blow air at the viewer, is funny but feels unfinished; why couldn't it float over the entire railroad?

Joy Wulke's "Here, There, and Everywhere" is a marvel, a little Emerald City made entirely of glass, lights, and rock candy; when the train moves through, its reflections skitter and intersect over a dozen or so surfaces. She and Doug Bosch win the prize for best use of materials: Bosch's creepy, sweet "Tickled Pink" features a bed of red lichen and hovering pink plastic disks that flutter wildly as the train goes by, hidden beneath the lichen.

Stuart Schechter's "Plush" is fuzzy in more ways than one. It's a baby-shaped mountain of stuffed animals, penned in by wire; some bob up and down as the train passes. With that mildly spooky movement and the evocation of innocence, it's supposed to conjure the darker history of railroads, such as trains transporting people to concentration camps during the Holocaust. It fails.

Ahmed Abdalla, known for layered paintings covered with calligraphic marks, here offers a sculptural landscape that refers to an incident in 1906 Egypt in which the occupation British government executed several local farmers. The train scoots beneath a wooden platform holding a pile of terra-cotta vessels, which accrue into something larger the way his marks do on canvas, but the piece falls short of being an evocative shrine.

Abdalla and Schechter are both too serious for this essentially playful exhibition, unlike George Greenamyer, whose tongue-in-cheek "Cornelius Vanderbilt, Chief Rogue of the Railroad Robber Barons," a giant, folk-art style statue, looms over his patch of track.

In the end, "Trainscape" is too ambitious and jumbled. Wallace Stevens's blackbird aside, it should have been one large installation dreamed up by a much smaller group of artists.

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Trainscape: Installation Art for Model Railroads

At: DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, through Jan. 13, 2008. 781-259-8355, decordova.org

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