at Peter Miller Gallery, through February 12

Looking at Michael Ashkin’s constructions at Peter Miller Gallery, I thought I’d happened upon the work of a talented hobbyist. The first work, Long Stretches of Highway Were Punctuated Only by Infrequent Oncoming Trucks, like the other seven works in the show is a three-dimensional model, a rectangle almost eight feet long mounted on a table. At the center a smaller road intersects a highway, which runs the length of a barren landscape. A truck and car approach each other on the highway, which is surrounded by mostly barren soil, irregularly clumped, with occasional white stains. There are two drainage pipes under the raised highway, and the soil near them is shiny, oily, as if covered with chemicals from the pipes. Two tiny red stop signs on the empty smaller road guard the intersection.

But despite my first impression, and despite the fact that many of Ashkin’s trucks, shrubs, and other objects were purchased in shops that sell to model-railroad enthusiasts, this is not the work of the average basement model builder. Where most hobbyists show a taste for excess, Ashkin gives us sparseness. Long Stretches is elegantly, formally symmetrical–viewed from above, it could almost be a minimalist painting. Many of the other works suggest trompe l’oeil painting. The objects–some of which Ashkin has repainted–are arranged with great care; I can still see the minuscule red stop signs, made luminous by their placement amid browns and grays. But most powerful about the piece is the way the details converge to make an emotion-filled statement. The two vehicles, isolated from each other, proceed down a roadway that is itself isolated, on a raised embankment. Anyone who has ever taken a long-distance car trip knows the feelings of boredom, isolation, and emptiness this work so movingly evokes.

As I proceeded through the eight pieces in this exhibit–and I strongly recommend viewing them in order, starting left of the entrance and proceeding clockwise–it became clear that the works had a kind of story to tell. Ashkin portrays motorized conveyances–trains, planes, cars, trucks–and the industrialized landscapes we’ve created as utterly alienated from the natural world. The vague feeling of unease generated by the sparse Long Stretches in subsequent works approaches paranoia. We see planes and trucks losing their bearings in the wilderness, threatening to vanish into the “north”; in two of the last pieces solitary wanderers leave their cars and set off on foot–arguably the best way to begin to have a less alienated experience of the land.

Ashkin, 38, a recent MFA graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has a wildly diverse background that has doubtless influenced his art. Born and raised in New Jersey, he built tree houses and studied classical piano as a boy. An Oriental studies major in college, he pursued an interest in Arabic and Hebrew literature in grad school; at that time he also began to take photographs. His interest in languages led to an interest in computer languages; deciding against an academic career, he became a computer programmer. Working in New York with Salamon on Brothers’ bond traders at the height of the 80s boom, he witnessed the kind of cutthroat competition that drives free-enterprise capitalism. At the same time he took up painting, coming home from work and painting far into the night. In 1989 he quit his job and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute. Though these pieces are quite unlike his earlier work, they continue his movement away from conventional painting. Among his earlier pieces was an untitled large dark tower on wheels designed to be placed in various landscapes. While making a model for a similarly large work, Ashkin decided to give it more life by making a model setting for it as well; that miniature landscape led to the present show.

The second piece is called Several Days Out Their Compasses Began to Drift Aimlessly. They Drove On, Accompanied by the Sense That They Were Now Being Watched (each title is printed on a label affixed to the front of the piece). On a tabletop is a tan board mostly covered with a sandy powder (a mixture of flour and cement). This desert is punctuated by a few dry shrubs and an occasional abandoned piece of junk–a truck cab, a vehicle wheel. On the right of the board is a V-formation of small trucks, mostly tow trucks, heading toward the left. One truck is behind another, outside of the V, and behind each truck are tiny tire tracks in the sand; a double set of tracks trails the two trucks that are aligned.

Such details as the double set of tracks and the careful (but not symmetrical) arrangement of sand and shrubs give Ashkin’s work much of its vision. Each piece has a dual nature–these lovingly constructed, hyperrealistic landscapes also have the perfection of dream images so rare and memorable they come with the force of a revelation. But as befits dream images, they can’t be completely explained. Where are the trucks heading? Why are the compasses adrift? Why are the few abandoned truck parts all on the table’s left side, where the trucks are headed? This can only bode ill for them; Ashkin hints the trucks will eventually fall apart.

In the next two pieces vehicles do self-destruct. Far North, Over Uncharted Shallows, He Began a Slow, Peaceful Descent is a small landscape of rocky shallows; the “water” is a splendidly luminous resin that allows a clear view of the muddy and rocky. bottom. Some rocks protrude above the surface, and they look lighter and drier, while the ones below have a dark, “wet” color. Above the shallows is a small red and white plane, tilted at a severe angle, one of its wingtips just touching the water. You don’t need a pilot’s license to know that this plane is about to crash.

As in the other pieces, the details are what give this work its life–the sense that it shows an actual event. The wingtip is causing a small wake, beginning at one of the exposed rocks, implying that this was the point of initial impact. The plane’s descent is clearly not “peaceful,” but the shallows are; except for the wing’s wake, nary a ripple mars the surface. This plane is about to be destroyed in an encounter with one aspect of Ashkin’s impeccably depicted natural world: the rocks that break the water’s surface.

The fourth piece, Free Now to Follow the Current, the Truck Headed North, shows a big tanker truck that’s driven into a river along a blacktop that seems to end in the water. Ashkin has carefully arranged rocks and soil and a few pieces of wood around the road; submerged in the stream near the truck is a red truck undercarriage–like the truck parts in Several Days Out, perhaps a vision of this vehicle’s future. Though the truck seems stalled, the title offers the possibility that a rising current might carry it “north,” presumably toward deeper wilderness. On the top of the truck stands a driver who surveys the scene passively, staying with his truck, waiting for the current to carry them both off. In Ashkin’s vision highways lead drivers to submerge their vehicles, and currents carry both away: nature is reclaiming the world from the machines with which we’ve covered it.

The next piece, For Months He Lived Between the Billboards, is one of the show’s two best. It’s also the most firmly rooted in our industrialized landscape. At the left is an elevated four-lane highway, next to which stands a large signboard; a warehouse at the top is surrounded by a parking lot; and two boxcars sit on railroad tracks to the right. Police cars have stopped traffic in both directions on the highway, and people have gotten out of their cars and are looking at the sign. In the parking lot are several police cars, a TV truck, and scattered observers looking toward the sign. If one peers into the space between the two sides of the billboard, one can barely see the tiny figure of a man, a few pieces of furniture, and a tentlike covering.

Once again, details add a powerful verisimilitude. One side of the billboard contains a cigarette ad, and the other reads Space Available followed by a phone number (which, it turns out, is Ashkin’s own). The police cars on the road are placed at diagonals to it that suggest a careful attention to composition. Eventually the viewer focuses on a hook-and-ladder truck near the center; its ladder is extended toward the sign and a fireman climbs it. Other emergency vehicles are parked under the highway.

While in Ashkin’s other pieces the motorized vehicles seem to be on the verge of destruction, overpowered by nature, here the whole scene is on the verge of imploding. The few out-of-place trees amid barren brown soil and the confusing arrangement of vehicles, people, and buildings suggest that man-made landscapes are inherently as unstable as the plane in Far North–in fact about to collapse into chaos.

There’s a social meaning here as well. The chaos is the result of our society’s reaction to someone who’s found a way to live in this alienating and inhuman setting–the entire social order is threatened when one person converts a fragment of this man-made desert into a home. The landscape is generic, anonymous–this combination of highways, warehouses, and empty land could be almost anywhere. Ashkin seems to suggest that such settings are antihuman, and so is the civilization that created them and that calls out all its forces to prevent a lone wanderer from converting them to his own use.

The next work, His Chauffeur Would Wait Below, Sometimes for Hours, makes a similar point but by contrast. This time the barren landscape is hilly; a water tower sits on a large rise to the rear. In the front is a tiny BMW with a chauffeur standing beside it, but the “he” of the title is nowhere to be seen. The wealthy are free to drive (or be driven) wherever their fancy carries them, and to stop and explore in freedom; but the homeless, whose mobility is restricted, are ousted when they attempt to make the urban landscape their own.

The largest and most moving work in the show is the next-to-last, He Set Off Along the Power Lines. Almost 25 feet long by 1 foot wide, it is mounted on a number of ascending platforms. Power lines run down the middle of a strip of desert landscape that’s irregularly sloped but, for the most part gradually rises. The land is punctuated by scattered shrubs and an occasional rock or fallen pole. Soil and silt have accumulated in small depressions, and one deep gully contains a mass of detritus. At the front of the landscape an empty car is parked; near the 5th of the 16 power-line poles a solitary figure walks, his back to the car. The figure is placed near the lowest point in the landscape; as he walks farther, he will ascend.

The great German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich sometimes painted one solitary figure or a few of them–surrogates for the viewer–staring off into the distance, at the setting sun, the rising moon, the clouds. They lead the viewer toward a vanishing point at infinity, encouraging a mind’s-eye journey toward some otherworldly state.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that a slide of a Friedrich painting was one of Ashkin’s inspirations for Free Now to Follow the Current. These are works about the solitary seeker, aware that our industrial civilization is on the brink of collapse, trying to find a home within it or (preferably) away from it, sometimes in the “north.” Ashkin–who has lived in the Middle East and used to take daylong walks into the desert–constructs his landscapes with a hiker’s knowledge of terrain. The landscape of He Set Off contains tiny deposits left by water, tiny drill bits on the ground, perhaps waste left over from the construction of the power lines. This is land that has a history, and a future.

If Friedrich’s suns and moons have an ethereal luminousness that suggests transcendence of the physical world, Ashkin’s figures can transcend the physical world only by leaving the image–as in His Chauffeur Would Wait, or as may happen in Free Now. Ashkin’s hiker in He Set Off will gain altitude, just as Friedrich’s figures gaze upward at mountain landscapes; but Ashkin’s landscape conveys no otherworldly light. Yet Ashkin shares the romantic’s distrust of the quotidian present–even as industrial civilization crashes down around his figures, they seek out some space in the invisible distance.