Randall Sellers uses pencil to make tiny landscapes. Carefully, he constructs little civilizations that merge the past, present, and future into places that are as personal as they are political. Miniscule space needles share topography with post-Soviet structures that might be imposing if they weren’t so cute. Little bits of classicism stand in for the ruins of our current epoch, representing the remains of American imperialism. And there are people, too, sometimes hidden inside post-apocalyptic cottages, and sometimes zoomed into the foreground. On this stage they celebrate and struggle with a world that is sometimes the one we live in, sometimes the one yet to be.
Sellers draws at a coffee shop on South Street, the margin that divides South Philadelphia from Center City. He sits, hunched at a table near the window, and slowly fleshes out the environments in his mind. On the table lays his collection of instruments; in addition to pencils as sharp as scalpels, there are tiny erasers, cut at an angle to make their tips even tinier. The erasers are essential, since the drawings evolve over time and don’t always end up where Sellers anticipates. Somehow, by investing so much time and care in them, Sellers creates spaces into which viewers can project themselves. His pencil provides paths that, when followed, lead to cities exploding three-dimensionally with detail and intrigue.
Sellers has been imagining fictive or little-known places since childhood. Growing up in a small town outside Philadelphia, Sellers could see bits of the city from his window, and incorporated them into his imagination: distant water towers and flashing radio beacons on the hill.
The exquisite density of the world Sellers describes at first resists penetration. Introverted though they are, the drawings come from his experiences, and they are maps of the world he lives in. The cities, which tremble with life even when apparently uninhabited, offer aromantic, wistful image of post-apocalyptic America and simultaneously warn of the difficulties and dangers ahead. Figures are sometimes metaphors for the state of the world and how its inhabitants must navigate its hazards. It’s no great surprise that a simultaneous project of Sellers’s is building little survival kits, complete with hooks for fishing Philadelphia’s urban Schuylkill River.
A single image might reveal a private narrative from the artist’s life playing out under an ominous cloud of dark smog, all elements worked deftly into a single, self-contained ecosystem of visual relationships. Human figures live in the landscape or are part of it, stretched out like mountain ranges between the delicate scattered ruins, the roads of the city ghostlike on their skin.
The little pictures aren’t so quiet that they’ve escaped notice, and Sellers, who graduated from Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art in 1995, has shown his work in Paris and Japan. Like Sellers himself, the work has a placidness that can be deceiving; both, when examined, reveal amazing capacity. The drawings which once graced a café table have been acquired into collections such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Sellers thrives on paradox, and this means the drawings are many things at once. Just as his dainty fragments of classical structures warn us of the consequences of modern progress, the new buildings that grow like wildflowers around them hold the promise of a beautiful tomorrow.