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Thursday, October 22, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sometimes, A Little Is A Lot -- Coca's New Show Of Minuscule And Small-Scale Art Comes With Big Impact, Lots Of Meaning

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- VISUAL ARTS PREVIEW

"At the Threshold of the Visible: Minuscule and Small-Scale Art, 1964-1996" Through Dec. 12 at the Center on Contemporary Art, 65 Cedar St., Seattle; 206-728-1980. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; admission is $4. -------------------------------

The new exhibition at the Center on Contemporary Art, "At the Threshold of the Visible: Minuscule and Small-Scale Art, 1964-1996," forces us to look at art more closely than ever. With this grouping of 60 paintings, sculptures and photographs by 27 artists, all aspects of miniature art are explored.

Remember the fellow who put the Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle's venerable waterfront tourist store? Bearing him in mind, you'll get the point quickly in this fascinating and difficult-to-see exhibition. With a distinguished pedigree of big-name New York artists, including Joel Shapiro, the show challenges all our preconceptions about what art is. Any show that does that is well worth seeing.

While many of the works have complex and high-flown reasons for their tiny size, the painted strands of hair by Hagop Sandaldjian are closer to folk art, or something akin to a freak show or carnival act. At barely 150 microns wide, these paintings and sculptures of Donald Duck, Goofy and others require the attached magnifying glasses to be seen.

Is a real diamond placed next to a cubic zirconium by Chris Burden an example of gimmick art? Sure, but like the rest of the show, they're fun to look at and wonder about. Also in this vein are chewing-gum sculptures in sexually suggestive shapes by Hannah Wilke and a ladder carved of human bone by former Seattle artist Charles LeDray.

Once you've explored these pieces, you'll be likely to agree with the character in "Alice in Wonderland" who said, "things are seldom what they seem." Looking at so much tiny art, viewers must concentrate so intensely that they may begin to question the whole process of seeing. That is precisely what the organizers, Ralph Rugoff and Susan Stewart, want us to do.

"At the Threshold" is a lot of fun despite the mental gymnastics it puts us through. Jeffrey Vallance's savage satire of the Nixon Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., shrinks down campaign trivia to the size of a press-on fingernail. And Sam Samore's 1/8-inch-high, black-and-white pictures of strangers photographed by hired detectives provide a big jolt for such minuscule objects.

Another ex-Seattle artist, Peter Santino, is gradually carving away two lead bullets stamped "Peace" and "Love" to make his own vague political point.

Some of the works poke fun of giant art, such as the late Gene Davis' micro-paintings from 1966. (His larger abstract stripe paintings were often 25 feet wide.) Michael Ross ridicules big-scale, minimal metal sculptures with his "2 German Erasers in a Pair of Window Stops" and "Untitled (Judd)," both from 1994.

Less arcane, Joan Nelson makes miniature oil and acrylic paintings of real landscapes that make one wish Seattle's own leading miniaturist, Joe Reno, had been included, too.

The most famous work on view is not really that small. When John Lennon met artist Yoko Ono at her gallery exhibit in London in 1966, he had to climb up a five-foot ladder to read a little sign on the ceiling through a magnifying glass. You can re-create Lennon's move and find out what he saw on the ceiling.

When you're on the ladder, look around at the beautifully designed and installed exhibit. Rarely has so little added up to so much.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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