Taking time for a big look at teeny art Art review

November 26, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The second half of the 20th century has been an era of big art, from wall-size canvases by the abstract expressionists to Christo's wrapped buildings. So the very idea of a show of tiny art possesses a degree of refreshing charm. And "At the Threshold of the Visible: Minuscule and Small-Scale Art, 1964-1996," at the Maryland Institute, works well as the presentation of an idea. Its individual works, however, have less impact than one hopes for.

There are 29 artists represented by 60 works, most of which range from a few inches by a few inches on down to the microscopic. "Auto-Sculpture," by the late Egyptian artist Hagop Sandaldjian, consists of a head painted on a piece of dust resting on a hair inside the eye of a needle.

It's a welcome change to look at these tiny objects, when one is used to works on the scale of the human body or larger; it's like going from a roomful of people shouting to a roomful of people whispering.

And being with them for a while makes one adjust one's sense of scale: the valise in Elizabeth LeMoine's "Valise with Chair," though only about two inches in each dimension, looks huge in comparison with Sandaldjian's head. Galleries and their walls change scale, too; a wall that might ordinarily carry only one work can look vast when installed with a half-dozen works measuring no more than an inch square.

These tiny works have something to teach about paying attention. One often has to focus intently just to make out what they are, and that reminds the viewer how easy it is to be sloppy about looking at full-scale art, to glance at something for just a second or so and move on. The show will have been worthwhile if it teaches people to notice more.

In a larger sense, the show prompts ruminations on one's place )) in the scheme of things. On the one hand, as curator Ralph Rugoff puts it in his catalog essay, "Indirectly [the show's works] invoke our own limited place in a potentially endless spectrum of scale, our inconsequential presence in the larger scheme of things." True, but there's another side to that coin. If things this small and inanimate deserve attention, then how much more attention does a living, thinking, feeling human being deserve?

So the show works well as an entity, a work of conceptual art about the idea of minuscule art. But when one looks at individual pieces as independent works of art, many of them prove no more nTC significant than their size.

The best example of this may be found in the five tiny 1960s paintings by Gene Davis. As a leading member of the Washington color school, Davis was a major American artist of the postwar period. But his five paintings here, measuring from 1 inch by 1 inch to 3/8 -inch by 3/8 -inch, are not major Gene Davis paintings. They're oddities, no more, and much the same can be said of many other works here. Making something tiny tends to be an end in itself, which is why one thinks of this show in terms of what tininess connotes rather than in terms of its individual works.

The smaller view

What: "At the Threshold of the Visible: Minuscule and Small-Scale Art, 1964-1996"

Where: Decker Gallery in the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Mount Royal Station building, Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (until 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays), noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 21

Call: 410-225-2300

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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