Getting Small

Todd Muffatti thinks inside the box

Photo by Jack GouldHoliday shopping for my girlfriend is a cinch. I just hit See's Candies, Victoria's Secret and Toys R Us. Kris—an intelligent, mature, lovely woman who is not at all socially backward, insane or frightening—collects Star Trek action figures. The shelves of our home teem with a mighty army of tiny Klingons, Romulans and Borg. There are hundreds of these little guys, and while it took some time for me to get used to Kris' shrine to all things Roddenberry (at first, it was sort of like being trapped in a Star Trek convention that never ended), I now take it for granted. I've even learned to appreciate a well-made action figure. Really, it's amazing how accurate some of the likenesses on these little guys are, especially when you consider that the poor schlub who sculpted their heads was working on an area about the size of a jellybean.

On some level, we can probably all sympathize with the wish to own a tangible piece of some beloved pop-culture icon. At one end of the spectrum, there are those of us who are content to own a Clash T-shirt or a coffee mug with a picture of Humphrey Bogart on it. Further along on that spectrum, you've got fans like Kris, people whose obsessions are either cute or spooky, depending on your inclination. Continue down this path, past the guys who blow a year's pay buying John Travolta's white suit from Saturday Night Fever, past the girls with images of Marilyn Manson tattooed across their chests, to way down at the end of the line, where the sidewalk ends, which is where you'll find Fullerton's Todd Muffatti.

When Muffatti was but a lad, his parents took him to a New York television studio to see the production of a TV program, an experience that obviously warped Muffatti's fragile little mind in the best way. By 16, he was sculpting miniature TV studios. He grew up to design sets for repertory theaters nationwide, and for many years, he was professor of scene design for Cal State Fullerton's department of theater and dance. Today, he builds astonishing miniature replicas of the sets from his favorite TV shows.

Go see his show "Owed to Television" at the Artscape Gallery on Fourth Street in Long Beach, and you'll have an experience that's a bit like taking in Universal Studios in one gulp. It's a Lilliputian Museum of Television, in which the domiciles of the Bunkers, the Kramdens, the Ricardos, Jerry Seinfeld and others are all crammed into a space about the size of an upper-middle-class person's bathroom. These scenes are framed by faux television sets, and they're all just about the size of the image you're used to seeing on TV, so the effect is rather like looking at your favorite shows in super, super 3-D. The details are astonishing. Check out the fabric on Archie's chair! Look at the itsy-bitsy dishrag hanging in the Kramdens' apartment! A couple of the tableaux are even—impossible though it seems—in crisp black and white.

Most of these shows have begun to drop off the air after decades of reruns (when was the last time you actually saw an episode of The Honeymooners?), so revisiting their sets has some of the same feel as going back to see your old family home: sure, everything is where you remembered, but it all feels different, and it's all so much smaller than you recalled. Without the welcome presence of the characters, these living rooms all seem strangely empty and forlorn. There is a feeling of intrusion, as if you've broken in. The acclaimed theatrical-stage set designer and critic Robert Edmond Jones once compared a good set to a room that is decorated for a child's birthday party but has no children in it. A good set shouldn't be a completely satisfying experience in its own right; it should leave us in suspense, waiting for the action to begin. Muffatti's sets are fascinating, but they also prove that Jones knew his stuff; looking at them, you find yourself waiting for the action to begin. You practically expect to see a G.I. Joe-sized Kramer come stumbling though the door of Seinfeld's apartment.

You could search for a deeper meaning in Muffatti's work, some critique of television or a grand statement about pop culture, but I think you'd be searching in vain. Muffatti strikes me as nothing more or less than a damn talented tinkerer who shares his tinkerings with the world. When he reaches for something more, he usually falls short. Squares features cutouts of various cartoon advertising characters as contestants on The Hollywood Squares; it's kind of cute, but if Muffatti has a point, it doesn't begin to register. Finale is a little better, featuring a television within a larger television within a larger television. One could almost take it as a statement that all TV is ultimately about nothing more than TV, but I suspect Muffatti just thought it would look really neat—and son of a gun if he ain't right. Of the more formally experimental pieces, only Josephine really rang my bell; I never would have imagined it was possible to portray a bad TV's vertical roll in three dimensions. Now that I've seen it done, it seems absurdly simple, almost obvious; truly original ideas often do.

What more can be said? Muffatti's work is stubbornly critic-proof. Like Popeye, a TV star who would fit right into Muffatti's small world, this art is what it is, and that's all that it is. Also like Popeye, it's strong to the finach. Rush out now and see "Owed to Television"; it's the best thing you'll see on TV for a long, long time.

Todd Muffatti's "Owed to Television" at the Artscape Gallery, 2226 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 434-3224. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. Through Aug. 14. Free.
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