California Small Works Exhibit

Thinking Small

By Gretchen Giles

PHIL LINHARES STANDS looking at a portrait of a dog. Behind him pass staff of the California Museum of Art, carrying artworks in their cotton-gloved hands, holding the pieces with all of the tremor normally accorded the movement of plutonium.

Pieces of art are hung on the walls and laid on every available flat surface. Wrought from materials as disparate as acrylics and seaweed, they all share one commonality–not a one of them is over 12 inches tall, from base to stern, from frame to corner. Not a one of the 650 of them.

Linhares, the chief curator of the Oakland Museum, is surveying the dog as a result of having come this morning to the CMA to judge its annual California Small Works show. His day has included looking at and really seeing each of the 650 pieces, reducing that number to some 153 he deems excellent enough to be included in the exhibit. The result is an uneven collection of work from both the outstanding and the wha’ huh? strata, his choices ranging from fine abstract and realist paintings and sculpture to cheerfully framed depictions of garden tomatoes and small houselike dwellings curiously glued over with pretty rocks and twine. One wonders if this big-city curator isn’t bending down just a bit for us country folk.

“It’s just a very good, very impressive, and expressive portrait of a dog,” Linhares explains of the thickly painted canine portrait–a special award winner. “It’s a really lively painting.” As he speaks, a close second look reveals the forcefulness and technique of the work. “The good stuff really calls itself out; you don’t really have to agonize,” he says, stepping back to survey the works on the walls. “They make themselves apparent.”

What is also apparent is that such seemingly simple artistic approaches as assemblage–examples of which lie tagged on various museum tables–are in fact as difficult as to create as it would be to define a tiny world suitable for all of those whom you honor most, outfitting it in perfect harmony with every single element of itself.

“This landscape here,” Linhares says, gesturing to another special award winner, an undulating green landscape that seems to pulse from the canvas, “is just really powerful. And, in fact, at first I didn’t really see it, but it’s very intense and emotional.”

Installing this kind of complex exhibit involves cleverly grouping the works where “they need to be,” according to CMA director Gay Shelton. Avoidance of what she terms the “encyclopedia” effect–organizing by landscapes or by themes–is paramount. “You really have to fight the tendency to group everything together that’s familiar,” she says. Instead, she and installer Paul Yergeau will let the pieces find their own ways, painting down the walls softly to highlight the works and grouping as naturally as possible.

“Something good can be done in 12 inches square,” pronounces Linhares. “Photography has proved that. A definitive work doesn’t have to be overwhelming in size or scale.”

Small Works opens with a reception on Friday, Oct. 18, from 5 to 8 p.m., and continues through Dec. 22. CMA, Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Hours are Wednesday and Friday, 1 to 4 p.m.; Thursday, 1 to 7 p.m., and weekends, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. $2, non-members. 527-0297.

From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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