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Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum
THERE IS SOMETHING INHERENTLY political to our experiences of scale -- political in a pre-verbal, physically immediate sense. It is the politics that children understand best, experiencing as they do the "I'm bigger than you so you have to do as I say" that is the root of all other political negotiations, every day. Small children also understand the imaginative power of secret knowledge, of seeing the world from a different perspective, a world of the undersides of tables and chairs, of architectures within architectures. A large part of children's imaginative play is devoted to giantism or tininess, and to envisioning how the world is transformed from these points of view. As we reach our full stature, the urgency of imaginative shifts in scale diminishes, and, while experiencing a vague nostalgia for this more polymorphous time, we feel safe assuming things will more or less stay the same size from now on.

This nostalgia is the key to the success of much of the 20th century's most convincing art. From Albert Speer's stagings for the Nuremberg Rallies to the wall-size "heroic" paintings of the Abstract Expressionists and the gargantuan objets du pop of Claes Oldenburg, 20th-century art (architecture's always had a handle on this gimmick) has sought to overwhelm us with its scale. This kind of authoritarianism has been decried in liberal cultural circles for many years -- through most of the '70s and '80s, for instance, Jackson Pollock's immense work was derided as symptomatic of imperialistic, macho bullying. But rather than swing to the opposite end of the spectrum -- i.e., to miniature art, presumably with opposite political connotations --painting and sculpture have for the most part hewed to a crassly commercial couch-dictated midsizing. Still, there have been exceptions.

To very little fanfare, the Laguna Art Museum is hosting a compelling small show that has been in and out of curatorial limbo for over a year. "At the Threshold of the Visible: Minuscule and Small-Scale Art 1964­1996," originally slated for the fall of '98 at the Santa Monica Museum, was lost in the Bergamot shuffle and rescheduled to open this July 11 at the Huntington Beach Art Center. But then, in April, Huntington Beach Cultural Services Crank Michael "His Name Is" Mudd pulled the plug on what had been perhaps the most progressive and high-profile public art space in Orange County. Announcing a radical restructuring of HBAC, Mudd cited a surfeit of "confrontational work that deals with social and political issues" as the primary reason, bolstered by a questionable interpretation of the museum's budget deficit. Plans for all scheduled shows, including "Threshold of the Visible," and a retrospective of Margaret "Really Did All of Ex-Husband Walter's Big-Eye Paintings" Keane, were scotched. By attacking the very curatorial adventurousness that had put it on the map, Huntington Beach wrote its own ticket to nowhere. And made a hero out of then-curator Tyler Stallings, who promptly resigned (along with the entire HBAC staff and board of directors), and was quickly scooped up by Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Museum. Colburn not only made Stallings curator of exhibitions but publicly bashed Mudd's shortsightedness, and also committed Laguna to picking up the axed programming from the HBAC. Originally, this was to begin sometime in the new year, but by some sleight of scheduling, a slot was freed up and "Threshold" opened only a month into Stallings' tenure, just a couple of weeks behind the original schedule.

This commitment to a high contemporary-art profile and creative flexibility is a sign of the Laguna Museum's attempt to re-create itself from the ashes of its unsuccessful merger with Newport Harbor Museum. Regaining autonomy last year after a seven-month gestation as half of the Orange County Museum of Art, Laguna was born again with a pile of municipal dollars and a new paint job, but no clear identity. Laguna, while a multifaceted art community, is known to the art world largely as the home of the extremely peculiar Pageant of the Masters (where locals form elaborate tableaux vivants of famous paintings), and as the kind of "art colony" in which torrid paperback romances are set. Until snagging Stallings, the Laguna Museum had operated without a full-time curator for almost a year. It now appears to have been biding its time, for with one swoop it bagged a wad of positive publicity, a cutting-edge curator with a taste for pop-cultural quirkiness, and a marvelous show from one of L.A.'s most influential yet underrated curators and cultural critics.

RALPH RUGOFF, WHO ASSEMBLED "Threshold" for New York's Independent Curators Incorporated two years ago, is known primarily for his erudite columns on these very pages for much of the '90s -- essays of "art criticism" that continually startled with their innovative angles in approaching popular culture -- both in the kaleidoscopic range of subject matter and in his ability to tease out substantive issues in the most unlikely creative expressions: the Liberace museum, manhole-cover design and the Hyperion Waste Treatment Facility, to name a few. During the same period, Rugoff curated a series of potent gallery exhibitions beginning with 1990's "Just Pathetic" at Rosamund Felsen -- a show that set the tone and standard for much of the understanding and discussion of L.A. art for the decade to come, and on which the legitimacy of Paul Schimmel's "Helter Skelter" and the '90s L.A. art renaissance was built. Yet by the time of 1997's "Scene of the Crime," a tightly conceived conflation of all that MOCA's "Helter Skelter" and "Out of Actions" should have been, Rugoff had become something of a persona non grata among the art-world powers that be -- in part because of the common perception that his interest in popular culture came at the expense of the gallery shows he should have been covering.

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 Forever and 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