Toby Pikelin art
Artwork by Toby Pikelin

These Tender, Surreal Dioramas are a Study of Psychedelic Love

In Toby Pikelin's psychedelic dioramas, love is in the detail: the beer, the mess, the detritus

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated April 15, 2024

Toby Pikelin has planted at least 1.5 million trees all over British Columbia and this experience has informed her meticulous dioramas. This, and psychedelics. Her tableaus are set in the tree planting camps where social bonds are formed much like the mycelium that weaves a network in the dirt beneath and through the trees themselves. The characters are familiar, their presence cinematic in an indie kind of way. These are people brought together by happy ordeal. Both tripping and tree planting accelerate intimacy between people and it shows here in these scenes of leisure and respite, play and ceremony. The series is aptly named “Ties That Bind,” and it’s a study in love and specificity.

Psychedelic art since the Sixties brings to mind tropes of the geometric, the two-dimensional cartoon, the abstract fractal and mathematic. Very little of what is considered psychedelic art captures the relational, tender, and humorous aspect of what it means to trip with friends and lovers. Alex Grey’s opalescent and medical x-ray drawings are hardly intimate. Frankly, they are grandiose. Pikelin reminds us that the specificity that love evokes while tripping lands on things like the ski hat, the striped dress, the beer, the mess, and the house plant, the mundane detritus that becomes entirely fantastical when shot through with the substance of psychedelic love. You want to remember these kinds of moments together in the woods, your friend in a solitary room, the guy sitting
on the floor by the bathtub where she bathed for hours with her pink boots on, everyone making a human pyramid, who wore glasses and who didn’t. You want to remember it better than can be captured in a photograph. It has to be true to the realness of each beloved. In such an instance the voodoo doll ethos of the miniature sculptural diorama is the only genre that will do. It’s lo-fi realness, a tiny bit pathetic in its fragility, like all the young hearts put through time’s meat grinder. Memories of the best times we’ve ever had are ultimately sad, rendered such simply by the fact that the experience has passed. The essence of true friendship is a feeling that remains. These dioramas are voodoo altars to such memories.

The guy next to the bathtub wearing a leather jacket is telling a long story to the woman in the bath. Two beer bottles are at his legs. He’s been there for a while. She’s maybe thinking about something else altogether. It’s hard to tell if she’s even listening at all and it doesn’t really matter. He clearly needs to be expressing himself by the wood stove and the bookshelf, a quilt on the floor beneath the bath. I know this kind of scene intimately. The water’s probably getting cool. They might be tripping too hard to bother getting it warmer. Such a moment probably felt like it went on forever being that the scaffolding of time was disassembled by the drug and here the moment is kept in diorama. The freeze of realistic sculpture in miniature enacts the vibe of a psychedelic in-joke on the topic of time

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The humans are rendered at scale in this world while plant and insect life is not. Leaves and flies are eek-level gigantic but everyone’s keeping their head. They’re playing drums and serving drinks, a fox has fishnet stockings and people are smoking cigarettes. Ever present in these dioramas is the night itself, which isn’t pictured save for its basic black, but the action of all participants indicates a spirit that can only exist in a certain kind of nighttime. It’s an un-lonely night represented here, evoking the friendship bonds of teenagers, a mycelial night of slowly creeping tender bonds, a slow build to an epic heart glow.

The trees and the psychedelics are the agents that give these friends their shine. We can’t see them save for how they act upon these characters making them so tenderly human. What is seen in miniature evokes an awareness of the macro—a universal network of connections from the dirt through the trees to the stars. It’s a sweet feeling to see that in the depths of what is clearly ecstatic experience, a person can still be clumsy, awkward, and trying too hard with their outfit. These people might even be assholes for all I know, made holy by circumstance and spirit. I can’t help but feel tender towards them because I’ve been there too, in every single tableau. These are folks acted upon by the most delightful of external forces. Blessed by trees and touched by chemical magic, whoever they were before is now redeemed.

READ: Wangechi Mutu: Between Palimpsest and Prayer

*This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Issue No. 7.

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