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Artspace bucks America's super-size culture with a shrunken exhibit.

Little Things

Americans have a reputation for liking things big: all-you-can-eat buffets, big steaks, big houses, Big Gulps, Biggie fries, big shopping malls, big SUVs, etc., etc. I've always had great affection for things that are small.

To me, the miniature signifies a rarefied world of uniqueness, refinement, and yes, cuteness. In the world of art, however, "cute" might as well be a profanity.

"Bigger is better" seemed to be the aesthetic mantra of much 20th-century art. Roy Lichtenstein's enlarged cartoons, Claes Oldenburg's gigantic clothespins, Christo's acres of fabric, Robert Smithson's island-sized earthworks, Jeff Koons' mammoth balloon bunnies, Jenny Seville's huge canvases of human flesh — all these artists played out themes of excess, consumerism and the power of the gargantuan.

Art that is small often becomes synonymous with art that is precious, and precious is an adjective most artists abhor. It connotes an affected daintiness that negates the serious intent of an artwork. Artspace, however, has decided to buck the prejudices surrounding the miniature with its current show, "Think Small! International Miniature Invitational Exhibition." With few exceptions, the 167 works on display help redefine how competent diminution can be.

The invitation to exhibit a single or pair of works was sent to some artists who characteristically work on a small scale, but also was sent to artists who don't. The curator, Chuck Scalin, professor of communication arts and design at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a miniatures artists himself, put forth a challenge to keep images 3 inches square or less. The frame could be no larger than 12 inches square. Within these strict perimeters, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional works — including painting, sculpture, book art, printing, collage, craft mediums, and photography — were submitted and displayed.

Kristen Caskey's "Tiny Sleeves" consists of dozens of baby-doll-sized pink sleeves arranged like a blossoming flower on a wooden stick. Jennifer Cox's oil-on-plywood twin works feature close-up views of ancient ruins painted in exotic colors reminiscent of Gauguin's Tahitian series. Tiny photographs are exhibited in tiny lightboxes. Postage-stamp-sized paintings are matted in deep wooden frames. Noah Scalin wrote his life story on a Chiclet. Wryly capitalizing on the miniature, Gordon Stettinius has attached a magnifying glass to his framed photograph of stacked boxes.

It is interesting to see what artists who traditionally exhibit larger works do when faced with a 3-inch space. Travis Townsend's complex wooden boxes have been pared down to a cork-sized object with tiny scribblings attached to a signed pencil. C. Maynard Bopst's big mixed-media collages are shrunken to the size of a coaster. Willie Anne Wright's photographs are represented as pinhole views mounted in Victorian daguerreotype cases.

What is abundantly clear throughout the show is how potent the pint-sized can be. These works explore issues of scale and proportion. (If this piece of metal is enlarged, it becomes cold, industrial and machine-like; if it is shrunken, it responds delicately, like jewelry, to handling.) Size does matter.

"Think Small!" is a refreshing antidote to our supersized culture. It causes one to pause, look, think and wonder — to appreciate less as more and to count small blessings in every form. It is good this time of year and in this current environment to be reminded that it is a small world after all.

"Think Small! International Miniature Invitational Exhibition" will be on display at Artspace, 6 E. Broad St., through Dec. 22. 782-8672.

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