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Art & Architecture | AROUND THE GALLERIES

No fees, no permits, no kidding

May 09, 2003|David Pagel | Special to the Times

High Tech Hillbilly is not a style you'll read about in art history textbooks. But it describes the look and sensibility of Chris Burden's "Small Skyscraper," the prototype of an affordable structure you'll be able to build from a kit as soon as a few kinks are ironed out of the design.

To fit his four-story tower into the back gallery of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Burden has laid it horizontally. To ensure that it's not mistaken for a Minimalist sculpture, he has propped up one end on a sturdy sawhorse.

This makes it easier to imagine what his do-it-yourself skyscraper will look like when it's installed outdoors. It also allows viewers to run their hands over its streamlined aluminum girders, to examine the simplicity of its bolted fittings, to test the efficiency of its high-tension cross wires and to get a feel for its four floors and sun deck, all made of ordinary two-by-fours tightly sandwiched together.

In the front gallery stands an L-shaped section of one floor's walls, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors that meet in the corner. Sixteen drawings display various stages of Burden's quietly diabolical project, and a huge color diagram inventories (in pragmatic detail) most of the components used in its construction. They include aluminum beams (originally designed to be the frames of interior office cubicles), lightweight T-bolts, turnbuckles, ferrules, small solar panels and lots of sexy Scandinavian hardware.

Burden designed his mini-skyscraper in collaboration with TK Architecture, a new Los Angeles firm run by Linda Taalman and Alan Koch, formerly of New York's OpenOffice, which they founded in 1997 and left in 2003. Additional drawings and models of Burden's skyscraper are on display in a group show at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House on Kings Road in West Hollywood.

Ten years ago, when Burden began building a studio behind his house in Topanga Canyon, he was frustrated by the Byzantine codes and numerous permits required by Los Angeles County. He fantasized about how much easier -- and cheaper -- it would be to build something that satisfied his desires but wasn't up to code.

"Small Skyscraper" is that building. An instance of down-to-earth Utopianism, it's the biggest, most impressive-looking structure an individual can construct without breaking the law.

Burden discovered that if his building didn't exceed 35 feet in height and had no more than 400 square feet of floor space, he could build it without permits -- or the fees, inspections and delays that go with them. With his tongue playfully planted in his cheek, he says that he is just an artist who has made a sculpture that happens to function like a house that happens to look like a skyscraper.

As an artist and as a citizen, Burden is a renegade for the Information Age. He combines the leave-me-alone attitude of a backwoods recluse with the bend-the-law savvy of a successful attorney. He adds the sleek stylishness of a modern architect's high-end designs to give good old American ingenuity a new face. Although self-sufficiency and stand-alone independence may be more complicated than they used to be, his art shows that they are virtues worth fighting for.

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., (323) 957-1777, through July 27. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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Calder's mobiles don't rely on tricks

Generally speaking, sculptures look better than paintings do at the Beverly Hills branch of Gagosian Gallery, which was designed by architect Richard Meier. As for specifics, no sculptures installed there have looked better than mobiles by Alexander Calder (1898-1976). To step into the high-ceilinged main space is to be transported to a lighthearted realm of playful weightlessness and simple joy.

The best thing about Calder's modestly scaled sculptures that hang from strings and balance on bent wires is that they hide nothing from viewers. Playing no tricks on the eyes and providing no definitive knowledge for the mind to contemplate, they tell the truth about the world our bodies occupy -- that it's a sensual space suffused with little mysteries too wonderful for words and all the more satisfying for being so simple.

Literally lightweight, Calder's ever-changing constellations of abstract shapes occasionally include a crescent moon, a bright red heart, the silhouette of a mountain, a regal crown or a few puffy clouds. The outlines of each are no more complicated than a 5-year-old's drawing.

Using wires, fishing line, paper-thin sheets of tin and thicker sections of metal, Calder draws in space. His shapes are essentially vertical or horizontal, although none stays that way for long. Otherwise imperceptible breezes cause them to tip and waver, as if adrift on invisible currents or dancing to their own silent melodies.

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