CLOSE-UP : Toying With Affectations

Bruce Houston is returning to his former flame: disposable lighters. The artist, who uses mass-produced plastic items and toys to convey his irreverent social messages, had used lighters in earlier works to create scenes such as pool parties and office Christmas parties. His next project will be a street fight between a red lighter and a yellow one, as other red and yellow lighters watch from opposite sides of the street.

"They look just like little people to me," says Houston, who moved to North Palm Springs two years ago after closing his studio at the old Pabst Brewery just east of downtown L. A. "Both lighters and people have brief life spans. It seems we eventually use ourselves up, just like a disposable Bic."

Inspired by Joseph Cornell, Man Ray and Andy Warhol, Houston, 55, pieced together his first assemblages 30 years ago. His forte is paring down the complex art form by using the minimum number of objects to make his point. The results are often visual one-liners, like his dice- and ball-bearings-for-brains wedding cake couples. He has had shows all over the country, and his work will be on display at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena starting April 18. Producer Daniel Melnick, director Billy Wilder and actor Martin Mull are among his fans.

For the past nine years, he has been playing with toy trucks. The eccentric result is reproduced works of Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella serving as truck beds. The "freeway-like lines and curves" of the artists' work attracted Houston, and his trucks mock the affectations of pop art, transforming the paintings into movable commodities.

"I like to make people evaluate cherished beliefs and institutions," he says. "There are so many little objects duplicated in the world. Using them makes art more approachable."

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