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Art Review

Sweating the Small Stuff

'L.A. or Lilliput?' Offers Smart Look at 12 Artists Working in Miniature Scale

November 18, 1998|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

The Long Beach Museum of Art surveys a dozen emerging talents in "L.A. or Lilliput?" This is the centerpiece of one very smart exhibition in two parts; the other is " 'Toccata for Toy Trains' And Other Film Worlds of Charles and Ray Eames," nine '50s-era short films by renowned Southland designers Charles and Ray Eames. Both halves wonder why some resident artists choose to make small art in such a great big town. Comparing the two camps' approaches to miniaturization reveals dramatic generational differences sprouting from a common impulse.

Guest curator Michael Darling quite rightly identifies the binding motive as an urge to pleasantly regress to the imaginary, controllable fantasy spheres of kidhood. At the same time, Darling is keen on linking the impulse to the specific experience of life in our vast and untidy megalopolis.

The major connection lies, I think, in L.A.'s vastness. The place is so huge it's mentally ungraspable. Unable to sense its size, we're free to conceive it in any chosen dimension. Like Hollywood filmmakers, we can, so to speak, imaginatively match live action to a miniature set, or vice versa. We live on elastic ground.

"Toccata for Toy Trains" is a prize-winning 13-minute 1957 masterpiece with a score by Elmer Bernstein. Its vintage vehicular toys evoke a charming, nostalgic turn-of-the-century world. Unlike a special-effects flick, the Eameses' film never attempts to deceive but uses every trick of camera angle, focus and cutting to make its toy terrain seem cinematically real. Slick and highly professional, it announces itself as a grown-up enterprise.

By vivid contrast, "L.A. or Lilliput?" artist Susan Lutz presents a two-minute video, "Twister." A conscious parody of a special-effects destruction derby, it uses plastic dollhouse furniture piled on a Lazy Susan. Nothing goes right. The edge of a tablecloth flutters up on the scene. The furniture won't fall. The whole thing looks like the work of a gentle 9-year-old too well-behaved to do the job. In short, Lutz plays the whole thing like a real kid.

A less obvious but telling bond between Eameses and the young crowd appears in Sam Durant's copy-machine collage, "Abandoned House No. 2." The setting is clearly the Eames House in Santa Monica, an architectural icon considered a masterpiece of the century. Durant pastes in a zaftig skin-mag nude standing on the balcony.

Curiously, there's nothing especially malevolent in the gesture or Durant's other vandalizations of L.A.'s Bauhaus-inherited Case Study Houses. His work assumes the persona of a punk-inherited, rather agreeable slob who just doesn't know what he's doing and doesn't care. Beavis and Butt-head come to mind. Of course, their humor derives from innocent hostility.

A significant number of Durant's colleagues are equally preoccupied with L.A.'s built environment. Pae White's "Scatter Community Center 1" satirizes current Deconstructivist architecture in a model fashioned from garlic-bread fragments painted metallic colors.

Michael Coughlan's "Untitled (Castle)" are crenelated cardboard boxes that emit rude sounds. Julie Becker's "The Same Room" photographs various decorative schemes, all equally indecisive. Miles Coolidge's deadpan "Safetyville" photos find real environments reflecting recent social obsession with security. That scene where an insurance office is neighbor to police and gas stations really exists.

This art's slipshod craftsmanship and willful rejection of originality is noted. Thaddeus Strode's little environments and Luciano Perna's tableaux photographs are cobbled together from off-the-shelf hobby-shop or toy-store stuff. While employing some of the scale of illusionistic model making, its potential enchantment is avoided.

Nobody who remembers Dada or Pop will fall for these postures of helpless ineptitude. They have to be conscious. They're even employed by participants who clearly know what they're doing.

Michael Pierzynski's painted ceramics seem beautifully handcrafted. Yet examples such as "Hollywood Reservoir" pretend to be rich-kitsch luxury department store baubles as if they're found objects. Kenneth Riddle's elaborate but dispirited junk assemblage has elements that approach the skill of a professional horror-flick model maker. An artistic engineer lurks in Dave Muller's "Three Day Weekend Remodel." Jacci Den Hartog's plastic and plaster follies are magical in spite of themselves.

This must be a dreary time to be a start-up L.A. artist. If anybody deserves to feel like a Lilliputian in a town with 15 million inhabitants, its these guys. Architecture is currently king, and the movie studios make virtuoso skill commonplace.

Given all that, the ensemble aesthetic here is touching and understandable. At the same time, if art presents itself as ephemeral, flimsy, demoralized and uncommitted, aren't we obliged to take on its own terms?

*

* "L.A. or Lilliput?" and " 'Toccata for Toy Trains' and Other Film Worlds of Charles and Ray Eames," Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, and until 8 p.m. Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. $1-$2. Through Jan. 3. (562) 439-2119.

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