ART : Case Made for Smallness by 'Sculptural Intimacies' : Small-scale works have a place in the large-scale world, but this exhibit could use at least one piece with a big voice.

Does important sculpture have to be on a monumental scale? It sometimes seems that way in an era when "bigger" is ubiquitous--if not necessarily better--in other spheres of life.

From swollen conglomerates to jumbo shrimp, outsized entities are the norm. And as if in response to the vast, cold public spaces of the corporate world, contemporary sculpture often comes in mammoth sizes.

Yet there is a case to be made for smaller, human-scaled works--not cutesy miniatures but ambitious pieces that dominate only a few feet of space. That's the agenda of "Sculptural Intimacies," an exhibit by 12 American artists at Security Pacific Gallery in Costa Mesa. Although it's easy to quibble with the essentially conservative taste of guest curator Robert H. Byer, his graceful catalogue essay offers numerous insights.

Byer, an English professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, is a former Los Angeles resident who has written about photography and sculpture. In his essay, he discusses the historical context of intimate sculpture and analyzes its unique qualities.

Sculptors who work on an intimate scale get the benefit of a "decisive closeness" to "ideas and emotions," he writes, and viewers often find themselves scrutinizing detailed elements of the piece. Small-scale work can involve "invitations to the ceremonies of everyday use and to the unceremoniousness of play," he remarks, but it also paradoxically may evoke feelings of "distance or estrangement."

The sculptors he chose for the show include well-known figures--Manuel Neri, Bryan Hunt, Lynda Benglis and George Herms--as well as others who are scarcely household names. Bronze is the hands-down favorite of these artists, and most of the work in the show comports itself in ways that follow modernist precepts set down decades ago. For some reason, work as a whole seems to emphasize the willful irregularities of organic life.

William Outcault's gangly, piquant images of weeds, grass and other growing things are crafted from deckle-edged scraps and spikes of bronze. The sculptor magnifies some of the ugly ducklings of the natural world, building in a dogged scruffiness that goes along with the idea of "weed."

In "Grass," the artist's ability to suggest the individual growth patterns within a tuft of grass is reminiscent of sculptor Louise Bourgeois' knack for giving each element in a group of like objects a distinctive tilt.

Herms' assemblages are particularly elegant examples of the legerdemain he works with old tool parts, architectural ornaments and scraps of printed paper. Organic motifs are paramount in "Encrustation (Hook)." Among the luxuriously curving elements attached to an arch shape made out of a cardboard box are a sheet of curlicue-embossed metal, a rusted pan and nautical hook and a fragment of old-fashioned German fraktur printing (the kind that looks like Gothic lettering).

The use of gold and copper lends Jacqueline Dreager's small objects an aura of ceremony despite their humble positions on the floor or wall. Most of these works seem to bear witness to an arduous transformation of some kind. The caramelized color of the top of Dreager's "Golden One"--which sits on a gold oblong painted directly on the gallery floor--suggests metamorphosis by fire. In "Shorebird," black tarry deposits cling to a scraped piece of wood that emerges from a curved bronze "tail." Hints of an ecological theme hover about this piece, but formal values ultimately seem more important.

Wade Saunders' small bronze shapes also lie on the floor. Scattered evenly over a large area, they cluster, coil, fold and curl in ways that suggest all manner of organic objects: fingers, bladders, shells, leaves.

Bryan Hunt's cast-bronze pieces share an emphasis on vertical flow and heavily gestural surfaces. Michael Steiner's ribbons of cast bronze buckle and fold into loopy, abstract shapes. James Dinerstein compresses slabs of bronze or terra cotta into severely horizontal or vertical arrangements.

Isaac Witkin's bronzes include a model for "Study for Sioux Falls" (ripple-edged planes notched together) and a powdery-textured construction with a curdled surface that fits together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle ("Inferno").

Stanley Boxer casts his tiny bronzes to look like frozen brush strokes, with paint applied on top of the frenzied surfaces. Although a young, irreverent artist might do this as a sendup of abstract expressionism, Boxer is in his 60s and these works seem to be sincere homages to a revered modernist style.

Benglis' lush slumping-glass sculptures drag with them snippets of fine wire mesh, floating areas of bright color and lengths of metal pipe. Manuel Neri's blurred, sexless figures emerge haltingly from rectangular slabs of plaster or ceramic, or stop in elusive mid-gesture. Jim Huntington's granite and copper abstract sculptures employ predictable contrasts of smooth curves and roughened masses.

One major point Byer stresses is the "cultural erosion of a 'humanist scale' " in contemporary sculpture, with its frequently strident tone and epic dimensions. At the same time, Byer adds, viewers have become accustomed to looking at small photographic reproductions of art (in which everything tends to look the same size). So we've been missing out on the "nearness and palpability, and . . . the satisfying sense of formal rightness" that small-scale sculpture can offer.

Well, that's true as far as it goes, but it's a pity Byer didn't chose at least a token small piece with a pronounced conceptual or social slant. His choices seem to imply that if you're going to work small, you need to make pleasing objects that are not unduly baffling and don't scream and shout. The fact is, "humanist scale" no longer necessarily means nice pieces for the living room. Granted the bank's restrictions on showing obviously outre art, Byer still could have shown us how quietly subversive a small voice can be.

"Sculptural Intimacies" remains through Jan. 6 at Security Pacific Gallery, 555 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free, and so are the catalogues. Information: (714) 433-6000.

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