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Little Pieces 

Diorama artist tells stories in miniature

Thursday, Sep 2 2010

Rick Araluce has a day job building sets for the Seattle Opera, where it's not uncommon for him to make a piece of scenery 60 feet wide and three stories tall. You can see that stuff from a mile away.

But Araluce is best known for his miniature work. For stuff you have to squint at to make sense of. Stuff so small and unsettling and quiet, it seems you could topple it by exhaling.

Araluce builds dioramas, tiny roomscapes contained within boxes. "I go a little nuts because it's so small," he said at his recent show at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Feliz. "My goal is to make it even more insane. To make a tiny little screw with a tiny little screw head."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RENEE MCMAHON - Rick Araluce, life-size
  • Rick Araluce, life-size

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One of the works was a towering pile of books balancing on a pencil point. The books were the size of postage stamps. The pencil was smaller than a toothpick. He admitted with a swipe of his brow that, in addition to insanity, eyestrain is an occupational hazard.

Many of Araluce's room dioramas give the impression that if you'd just gotten there a few seconds earlier, you'd have seen tiny little people scurrying around, doing something unspeakable, or funny, or both. Other rooms are hermetically sealed. They are rooms where nothing has happened for years. No little people ever appear in his pieces because little people can't be done realistically, he explains. And anyway, the emptiness is more beguiling.

Araluce worked as a carpenter for several years. Once, while remodeling someone's house, he bashed open a wall and out fell a rusty old revolver. "There must have been a story. Who knows?" he asks. "What's behind the door? What lurks beneath the floor?"

Many of his pieces imply a story. These are invented stories, mostly, but his past sneaks in sometimes. When he was a kid, his mom tried to make him drown a mouse in a garbage can in their garage. But the mouse didn't drown. It just swam 'round and 'round. Years later, Araluce poured that childhood trauma into a piece called The Mouse, depicting a hose draped into an empty trash can in a garage. The whole scene is contained in a box four inches high.

Before he moved to Seattle, Araluce spent a Southern California boyhood drawing and painting and looking up pictures of Sherman tanks in the library to use as reference when building models of them. He never went to art school because he never thought he needed to be taught how to be an artist. He figured he already was one.

Araluce is tall, with scruffy brown hair and squirrelly, spastic mannerisms. It's hard to imagine this big guy in a kooky shirt making such dainty, elegant constructions. He walks around the gallery, compulsively adjusting the artwork one micrometer up or down, right or left. "Aaach! See, I gotta make it just perfect. This one is ..." He scratches his head. "What did I call this one?" He forgets the names of the works.

No. 4 is titled The Bad Plan. A noose dangles from a pipe, under which is a stool with a broken leg. "I had an image in my mind of some poor chump."

For No. 7, The Ultimate Journey, Araluce made a tiny black coffin. It levitates atop an unlit candle on a brass candlestick. The coffin's lid tips up ever so slightly. No tiny corpse, though.

"If there was something in there, it would be too much," he says.

Nearby is No. 9, The Peril of Eternity. It also features a minuscule coffin, but it is painted white. Snow clings to the walls of the room. The coffin is suspended on a string, as if two mountain climbers are carrying a fallen comrade.

These are spare, one-room boxes. But he also has more complicated stuff, like No. 12: A bright-red gift-wrapped present sits on a trapdoor, tethered to a string that drops below the floorboards into a basement, snaked across the ceiling through a crawl space, then traveling upstairs to a hidden room. You pull the string, and something unknown but probably awful happens. Araluce calls that piece The Predator.

He could buy the individual components from dollhouse suppliers, but he doesn't. Instead he makes every chair, every peeling baseboard, every intricate balustrade and lintel and corroded pipe himself with Bondo, epoxy, paste or wood. His attics are especially beautiful.

Elements recur. Lightbulbs, for instance. He loves lightbulbs. They have a shape he finds to be perfection. He uses them to symbolize a presence, a soul. A light above an empty chair symbolizes the vanished spirit of the person in a little room. He hangs the light exactly where the person's head would be. He hopes viewers will notice. (Most don't.)

Araluce can't get enough of doors, windows and wires; the latter especially fascinate him. They are ubiquitous in the world, running through cities and houses like blood vessels and nerves. "A trillion, gazillion wires, relay boxes, cables and on and on," he writes on his Web site. "Where do those wires come from? Where do they terminate? How long has the current been traveling and from how far away? There's such a sense of vastness with it all, of potential."

For a while, he took to leaving pieces out in public for people to discover. Or not discover. A half-inch-tall carafe of wine on the window ledge of an abandoned storefront in Culver City. A lightbulb the size of a pencil eraser tucked into a crack in a wall at 5942 Washington Blvd. A tiny book in the parking lot of a fancy gallery, behind a gas pipe. He hid these pieces almost two years ago. He checked on them during this visit to L.A. Miraculously, the lightbulb and the book were still in place.

People often compare Araluce to Joseph Cornell, who pioneered assemblage sculpture in the early 20th century. Of Cornell, Araluce says, with an embarrassed shrug, "I have poetry in my work. He's a poet."

Modesty aside, he hopes the "hoity-toities" will keep buying his art, and that the prestigious grants will keep trickling in. This is because he plans to add a motion component: little clocks with little hands to tick out the hours. He craves little spinning fans to circulate the stale air inside the boxes, and tiny working televisions, and teeny telephones with mysterious voices emanating from their receivers. Tiny video cameras scanning a tiny scene are not beyond reason.

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