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AROUND THE GALLERIES

Hole new take on a sponge

Artist makes a mathematical figure come to life, with folded business cards -- and lots of time.

September 01, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

On first glance, the exhibition at Machine Project looks like a standard recap of Minimalism. Three tidy white cubes rest on pedestals in the otherwise empty storefront gallery.

But a closer look reveals something wondrous -- another brain-stretching, comprehension-defying, do-it-yourself exercise with many of the ingredients with which Echo Park's small, weekends-only gallery has been making a name for itself for the last couple of years. There is low-tech labor-intensity, hands-on dexterity, profound curiosity about the ordinary world and an unflagging passion for the complexity of the seemingly simplest of things.

Each cube is an intricate mathematical figure known as a Menger sponge, made of folded business cards. These "origami fractals" were fashioned by software engineer Jeannine Mosely, with hundreds of volunteers assisting on the biggest.

The smallest measures 6 inches on a side. It's built from 168 folded business cards and takes a novice about 90 minutes to make. It's easy if you follow the precisely illustrated instructions in a field guide that accompanies the exhibition.

The $8 booklet, co-written by Mosely and curator Margaret Wertheim of the Institute for Figuring, includes a brief history of the Menger sponge, its place in physics and a biographic sketch of its inventor, Austrian mathematician Karl Menger (1902-85).

The medium-size piece, known as a Level Two sponge, is an 18-inch cube made of 3,456 business cards. It took Mosely 30 hours to construct.

The centerpiece, a Level Three sponge, is a 54-inch cube made of 66,048 cards. It weighs 150 pounds and exceeded Mosley's 600-hour fabrication estimate exponentially. She began in 1995 and finished in 2004, with more than a little help from her friends. Actually building something turns out to be a lot more complicated -- and time consuming -- than conceptualizing it in the abstract or designing it on paper.

Describing a Menger's sponge is no mean feat. Here is how Mosely begins her contribution to the field guide: "Take a cube, divide it into 27 (3 x 3 x 3) smaller cubes of the same size; now remove the cube in the center of each face plus the cube at the center of the whole. You are left with a structure consisting of the eight small corner cubes plus twelve small edge cubes holding them together. Now, imagine repeating this process on each of these remaining twenty cubes. Repeat again, and again, ad infinitum ...."

This accounts for the lacy appearance of the business card cube, which increases as the size of the cube does. Seeing three together invites the mind's eye to picture a fourth. And a fifth, if your imagination is up to it.

And so on, with no end in sight. Eventually you are left with a cube that occupies space but no longer fills it. Menger sponges hover in the ambiguous space been two and three dimensions.

The beauty of fractals is that they describe the world far more accurately than such simple geometric shapes as cubes, spheres and cones. Grasping their formal structure, however, requires a bit of mental agility.

The beauty of Mosely's sculpture is that it makes this easier for everyone, inspiring awe in the everyday stuff all around us and doing its little bit to keep minds open, engaged and in action.

Machine Project, 1200-D N. Alvarado St., (213) 483-8761, through Sept. 24. Open Saturdays and Sundays only. www.machineproject.com

Totally lost in catching the wave

At a time when people take pictures with their cellphones and almost everyone seems comfortable with a camera stuck in their face, it's refreshing to see LeRoy Grannis' black-and-white photographs from the 1960s and Jeff Divine's supersaturated color prints from the 1970s. At M + B Fine Art, their works take viewers back to photography's pre-digital age, when cameras were not ubiquitous and posing for pictures had not yet become second nature. Although both photographers focus on surfers, you don't need to be a wave-lover to appreciate their achievements.

Grannis' photographs are important historical documents, chronicling rides by such surf legends as Miki Dora, Dewey Weber and Chris Cattel, as well as just about every surf spot along the coast of Southern California. But one of the best things about his 24 grainy, modestly scaled prints is how awkward the surfers look.

Butts stick out inelegantly. Legs are splayed. Arms extend every which way. Torsos bend and twist, as if made of putty -- or like figures in Cubist paintings. Faces, when visible, are knotted up, slack-jawed or lost in concentration -- anything and everything except the photogenic expressions that grace head shots, family portraits and other pictures meant to be attractive.

This is because the surfers are so engrossed in what they are doing that they are utterly unaware of Grannis' camera, far off on the beach. The unselfconsciousness of the men riding waves is palpable -- and wildly out of step with the present, when even spontaneous gestures seem to be set up to look good in pictures.

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