By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
By a fluke, "Threshold" managed to find a venue while Rugoff was back ã
in L.A. this summer. But it's hard to imagine a less splashy comeback. To begin with, the show consists of pieces mostly smaller than a couple of inches, some of them microscopic. Timing prevented much of a publicity campaign, and summer shows are generally considered filler. Laguna is a drive; parking is a bitch. And the show bears signs of a hasty and makeshift installation, particularly in the lighting. One improvised high-rise vitrine, cluttered with Hannah Wilke's fabulous chewing-gum vulva sculptures, Jeffrey Vallance's tiny relics from
his Miniature Traveling Nixon Museum and several other important pieces, stands forlornly away from any save ambient light sources. An abundance of awkward Plexiglas vitrines and guardrails interferes with the unique intimacy these tiny works invoke. And what was to have filled three galleries at Huntington Beach is crammed (if that can be said about works separated by space 50 times their width) into one medium-size room. In spite of all that's stacked against it, the imaginative strength of the work easily overcomes what would cripple a lesser show.
Beyond focusing on the period after Pop Art toppled Abstract Expressionism's dominance in the art world, "Threshold"'s only other criterion for inclusion is size. The largest piece by far is the Yoko Ono ladder-and-magnifying-glass Yes Painting that made John fall in love. While its significance as a relic is indisputable, the barrage of signs forbidding access kind of squelches its immediacy, and despite the accompanying magnifying glass, the single word on the ceiling-hung canvas is clearly legible to the unaided eye. Even less convincing are the other Ono pieces included: cast bronzes of a large sewing needle and sphere, respectively titled Forget It and Pointedness. These too-solid evocations of pure conceptual diminutiveness ("This sphere will be a sharp point when it gets to the far corners of the room in your mind") threaten to open a can of worms better served by other post-Duchampian thought stylists; but the elucidation of nonmaterial aspects of minuteness thankfully ends here.
The rest of the work can be broken into roughly three subcategories: miniature depictions of recognizable objects (such as Joel Shapiro's 3-inch cast-iron chair or Charles LeDray's stepladder carved from human bone), actual-size small objects or images transformed (Steve Keister's cast hydrostone packing peanuts, Michael Ross' witty assemblages of household hardware or Aura Rosenberg's overpainted magazine clippings of murder scenes), or otherwise familiar art strategies enacted at a minuscule scale.
The last category is by far the largest, with the aforementioned Wilke gum works as standouts, as well as the abstract Micro-paintings Gene Davis made in the 1960s and the always mind-boggling microscopic sculptures of Hagop "Eye of the Needle" Sandaldjian. Tiny photographs make up most of this group, with contributions from Judy Fiskin, Sam Samore, Hiroshi Sugimoto and others divided about equally between landscape and portraiture. Several works defy categorization -- Chris Burden's hybrid of relics from his 1981 sculptural actions Diamonds Are Foreverand Napoleon d'Or in England and France, for instance, where the artist addressed issues of objective value by displaying to his audiences either a single cubic zirconia or a tiny cast-gold figure of Napoleon. In addition to a passport photo of himself, Tom Friedman offers a half-millimeter ball of his own shit on a large white pedestal. At an earlier showing, an unsuspecting visitor sat on this artwork, so now it is safely enclosed in, of course, a Plexiglas vitrine.
AS WITH ANY GROUP SHOW, INDIVIDual works bear greater or lesser amounts of attention. In fact, the amount herein warranted is indicative of an unusually good selection. But, in a way, this conventional assessment is curiously secondary to the overwhelming tininess of these objects. Whether we're observing the haunting, elegiac starkness of LeDray's ladder, the complex and exquisite critique embodied by Wilke's rainbows of gum or the nostalgia-racked landscape quotations of Joan Nelson, the meanings in these small things are amplified immeasurably by the psychologically, spiritually and politically charged intimacy they demand. The sheer humility inherent in tininess, so alien to the experience of modern art, renders even aggressively smart-ass work like Friedman's and Burden's wondrous. I saw people at the opening who would normally breeze through a gallery, going "Been there, done that," transfixed, peering at something smaller than their thumbnail, for minutes on end, and laughing. The awakening of this kind of attention, the lost childhood power to remake the world by an act of imaginative will, is the best art can do. And by doing it, "At the Threshold of the Visible" forces into the background the art-world politics (however repulsive or noble), the sometimes awkward physical presentation and debatable inclusions, and even the art-historical significance that is the exhibit's rationale -- framing the single, tiny but revolutionary reason everyone in the art world puts up with all the crap.
Ralph Rugoff will speak at the Laguna Art Museum, Sunday, August 22, at 11 a.m. For information, call (949) 494-6531.
At the Threshold of the Visible: Minuscule and Small-Scale Art, 19641996 l LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 Cliff Drive at Pacific Coast Hwy. l Through October 10