Long Beach Museum of ArtWith “L.A. or Lilliput?,” the Long Beach Museum of Art’s current exhibition of miniatures, guest curator Michael Darling takes the perception of Los Angeles as a gargantuan landscape that disenfranchises its denizens and sends it into a whole other sphere. Rather than try to reconcile him- or herself with the daunting sprawl, Dar- ling postulates, the dispossessed individual forsakes it altogether for a retreat into fantastic, intricate worlds of his or her own construction. These pseudo-architects map their own, less hostile city with childlike abandon. The exhibition makes plain that such an indulgent premise would likely be untenable anyplace but Los Angeles — lacking any sort of locus or geographic cohesion, our non-city forces its residents to suffer a freakish daily existence devoid of human contact. Factor in the tenet that the closer you get to a subject — e.g., through miniaturization — the more it blurs and radiates in psychedelic fashion, and you have the possibility of a lovely excursion. What keeps “Lilliput” from working up to its potential, however, is the artists’ inability to translate their adolescent giddiness into real wit and otherworldliness.
The one spectacular exception is Luciano Perna. Perna’s sublime color photographs of miniature figures in bafflingly lush and convoluted environments bring to mind the psychedelic Shangri-las of the oft-neglected master of miniaturization, puppet auteur Gerry Andersen, creator of the ’60s TV show Thunderbirds Are Go. Like Andersen, Perna blends a flawless visual sense and a penchant for radiant, heavily saturated color with boundless inventiveness and an absolutely ludicrous attention to detail in the environments of his lifeless “protagonists.” But unlike Andersen, Perna makes it very clear that he knows he’s dealing with plastic. In Martini Rescue, scuba divers scale the sides of a martini glass to reach swimmers stranded in the plush lime-green oasis of the glass’s center; in 33 rpm Suntan, figures sunbathe on the arcing grooves of a vinyl slab. These beautiful, devastatingly stilted and gloriously artificial works are as otherworldly as it gets.
Among the other works, Julie Becker’s Same Room series tries for something of Perna’s complex artifice, but lacks the formal sophistication. A series of drastic reinventions of a single room, the piece depends on each reinvention being austere, seamless and formally impressive. Unfortunately, the seams show, and the flat color accentuates the awkwardness. Make of it what you will that Darling chose to place these works, which he characterizes as “haunting,” with Michael Coughlan’s hilariously disruptive Castle — a large configuration of cardboard boxes concealing a tape loop of crowds screaming and cheering, among other raucous sounds culled from sound-effects records. While making concentration on anything in its vicinity virtually impossible, the piece itself is so ridiculous it can’t help but endear.
Notable elsewhere is Miles Coolidge’s photographic diptych Safetyville, depicting what may or may not be real cityscapes of industrial areas. One panel shows a Chevron station alongside a Kaiser Permanente office alongside a police station, reading like a litany not of reassurance but, as the title implies, claustrophobic sterility and vague uneasiness. Michael Pierzynski’s painted ceramics veer toward a similarly indefinable uneasiness but, if equally cold and sterile, aren’t nearly as menacing. Immaculately crafted nature scenes, they could pass for particularly rich thrift-store curios — albeit ones revealing scenes like a buck with his head separated from his body (entertainingly dubbed Threshold of the Spirit World).
Sam Durant’s Abandoned House series is more interesting in concept than in execution. Durant reconstructs the postwar showplace homes known as the Case Study Houses, years past their prime, dilapidated, charred and vandalized. Darling intriguingly posits them as “the architectural equivalent of voodoo dolls that allow ritualistic mayhem to be visited upon cherished traditions.” Durant then beats the idea into the ground with a series of unruly contemporary color images (a porn image of a woman with massive breasts, bent over giving a typical ass shot, another of a biker giving the finger) superimposed on black-and-white photocopies of model-home interiors circa the Case Study Houses’ heyday. Dave Muller, in his Broad Studio Remodels, fashions a more formally engaging and less smug, if also less conceptually ambitious, architectural model with his re-imagining of the absolutely mundane CalArts studios as an epic futuristic complex of buildings that for its grand scope might as well be the U.N. Ironically, all of the scale models in the exhibition are eclipsed by the nearby scale models of the museum’s planned renovation. With their expert late-’50s-drawing-board charm, they almost seem like part of the exhibition, but aesthetically surpass most of it.
In an ingenious bit of programming, the museum has developed, concurrent with the exhibition, a program of the miniature-centered experimental films of the legendary, much-loved Mod furniture designers/photographers/filmmakers Charles and Ray Eames. Despite their virtually unrivaled influence on everything from IKEA to the visuals propagated by pop outfits such as Saint Etienne and Pizzicato Five, the Eameses’ films are rarely seen. At their best drawing heavily on the well-known aesthetic of the husband-wife team (an effortless blending of sleek futurism and opulent, organic arcs and curves), the films depict sublime, glistening and, in most cases, retina-searing Eastman Color worlds truly in an orbit all their own.
What’s a supreme gift for the spectator, however, doesn’t necessarily flatter the artists in “Lilliput.” While their frame- of-reference positioning as old-master works is inspired, the Eameses’ resplendent homages to tops, toy trains, dolls and translucent octopuses –- along with “Powers of Ten,” their riotous model for miniaturization, which zooms from the outermost reaches of the cosmos to a proton of a carbon atom in the human bloodstream — point up the studentlike nature of much of the gallery exhibition. Darling has come up with a fascinating premise, but his choices in fleshing it out are something of a letdown. Only Perna can honestly be said to reflect favorably under the majestic specter of the Eameses; their works alone make the trip to Long Beach worthwhile.