Not Whimsy

Barbara Spring does loneliness, bitterness well

Photo by Jack GouldBarbara Spring is a crowd pleaser. Her room-size installations—like a kitchen scene of a man in a grungy bathrobe, cigarette butt hanging from his lip, glaring at his cowering dog's pile of shit while Lucky's cans overflow the small trash can under the kitchen table and an ugly bare light bulb sticks out of a wall—make bourgeois visitors to the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) howl with shrill giggles in an unpleasant, titillated way.

But that's not Spring's fault. Where visitors just see naughty piles of poo, Spring is detailing so much more: she's offering the grime of the bachelor apartment, the dishevelment of a Cary Grant-gone-ratty terry cloth, the horrid day-to-day crap with which we must deal when really all we wanted was another beer. And then there's the naughty pile of poo.

Spring used to be a beatnik, a former member of Britain's Women's Auxiliary Air Force with a husband and two small children. Now she's 82. She is sly, funny, independent and delicately vulgar, and she's not one of those sweet, dotty old ladies who only see the good in everything. She notices the daily quiet desperation of aging schlubs and exploits it mercilessly, elongating her figures like sad Modiglianis. There's Madame Trousseau's, for instance. A dumpy, thickening woman stands in her cone bra and big panties before a mirror, her hands in fists at her flat wooden sides. A drawer in the bureau is open, and we can see she has unearthed a stack of wooden Playboys. She's not happy with the comparison—but you can be, when you stand behind her in the mirror and compare yourself with her. Just don't let anyone see you examining yourself as a work of art. They'll titter.

Spring also scatters her carved dummies about LAM's upstairs gallery. She sets them before paintings she's carved from wood. She has them carry cats. She sticks them on horseback, but in a reverse Cubism, both sides (front and back) are the same. No one cares. They want the alienation of the installations. They want the crabby old woman sinking into her slipcovered chair, her handbag perched beside her, actively ignoring the man in the chair opposite hers. They want the bedroom in which one partner huddles under the blankets of the queen-sized bed while the other, unsatisfied, can't drift off. In the couple's kitchen, on the other side of the wall, food and drink spill onto the counter in carved puddles of wood from the unwashed dinner dishes.

Spring does loneliness and bitterness well, filtering them through the happy medium of cartoonish figures as skinny as old Warner Bros. depictions of Sinatra. Whimsical, my ass.

Downstairs, "At the Threshold of the Visible" takes minuscule works and makes them big. It's too bad for the fine folks at the Huntington Beach Art Center that they let director Naida Osline and curator Tyler Stallings go: when Stallings left for LAM, he took "Threshold" with him. And it's the kind of show that sets tongues wagging about its "importance" and "hugeness." Conceptual works do that to some people.

In fact, the daring concept behind these works—working in "insignificant" scope in an era when "new" meant huge canvases and huge earthworks and huge egos—has been largely played out. These are mostly the works of a previous generation, and the delight is more academic then visceral: they're no longer brave, but they once were. And they were important.

Many of these works, when originally shown, were tiny figures scattered across gallery floors, where they could be easily crunched like in Bambi vs. Godzilla. Now they remain on the floor, but under glass. It's awkward but understandable. The danger was probably the fun part.

Mostly from the '70s, the pieces include grand photos like Sam Samore's telescopic photos (taken by private dicks) of couples looking shifty and Hannah Wilke's obscene self-portraits, in which she sticks chewing gum to her face and body, where it looks like blistering lesions. And Chris Burden is here, with gold and diamonds and cubic zirconia, though no myrrh. And Aura Rosenberg has brought her small paintings of McDonald's massacres. Charles LeDray's Ladder is made of human bone. Hagop Sandaldjian—the hero of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA—is here with his microscopic sculptures on dust motes. No, really: dust motes.

But other works are small not just in scope but also in concept: knickknack-sized monuments like John Miller's The Dark Ages are smothered in a brown substance that's supposed to be excremental but just looks like pudding. And Siobhan Liddell's Five Rocks, 13 Pins is a yawning exercise in tired Zen pebble art that doesn't have much Zen to speak of. But it's tiny!

There is nothing tiny about Yoko Ono's famed ladder—the one John Lennon climbed in a Soho gallery to read the tiny word "yes" painted above. (I interviewed Ono last year, and she said: "[Lennon] climbed the ladder. But lots of people climbed the ladder. He was the only one who bit into the apple. I had this apple, a beautiful fresh apple, on this beautiful pedestal. I thought this apple should keep on deteriorating, like apples do, until the seeds just scattered to the wind. But he bit into it! I was thinking, 'How dare you?!' I was totally turning pale. And he had this look, like he'd been caught by the schoolteacher, you know? He put it back.")

Here, signs warn you away from the ladder, away from the tiny message. Lawsuits. "If she'd done that piece today," Stallings said, "there would be wider steps, railings . . ." Now it's an artifact commemorating a piece of art, and its happy—even subversive, once upon a time—message is there only for people who've read the story. It's like a recent cartoon that showed a velvet rope keeping museumgoers away from a protected work—another velvet rope. Still, it's nice to see. Go, and climb it when no one's looking.

"Barbara Spring Retrospective" and "At the Threshold of the Visible: Minuscule and Small Scale Art, 1964-1996" at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-6531; www.lagunaartmuseum.org. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; extended hours and free admission on the first Thurs. of each month, 5-9 p.m. Through Oct. 10. $4-$5.
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