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The big picture on a small scale

Special to The Times

The cliche that bigger is better has taken hold of the art world in the same way that SUVs have taken over America’s roads. Enormous museums are popping up everywhere and super-sized exhibitions are being mounted with increasing frequency. Taking advantage of new digital devices, photographers are regularly printing pictures of such vast dimensions that they don’t fit into homes.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a survey of Donald Blumberg’s domestically scaled photographs from 1964 to the present stands out because it’s anything but bloated. Lean, down to earth and inquisitive, the Los Angeles photographer’s 110 pictures fuse ambition and humility in a body of work that is accessible and idiosyncratic -- at once part of its age and an exception to the general tendencies of the times.

As a photographer, Blumberg initially appears to be a dabbler, a restless experimenter too excited by possibilities to stick with a single line of inquiry long enough to produce highly resolved results. Images from 21 series (each with its own title, such as Button Collage series, New York Design series, Collaboration with Rachel series and Space and Tonal Field series) hang beside untitled works (mostly landscapes) and more than a fair share of oddballs. The misfits include a super photo-painting hybrid from 1966 (made in collaboration with Charles Gill) and a Minimalist photogram, made by placing an object on photographic paper and exposing it to sunlight.

But as soon as you slow down, stop trying to read everything in an instant and refrain from shoehorning Blumberg’s photographs into tidy categories, you see that his wide-ranging works spiral around two fundamental questions: How do time and space change as they are filtered through a camera’s lens? And, what happens when photographs, which begin as depictions of everyday reality, take on a life of their own?

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Unfortunately, the way the exhibition has been installed makes it more difficult to understand what Blumberg is up to than if his works were laid out chronologically. Organized by associate curator of photography Tim B. Wride, the retrospective divides Blumberg’s conceptually consistent but stylistically diverse images into four categories: grids, landscapes, color prints and portraits.

To scan the photographs in one room is to ricochet through four decades of history. Rather than letting viewers follow the organic path of Blumberg’s spiraling development, which regularly circles back on itself, the exhibition tries to wrap his multilayered pieces into four unnecessarily neat packages. Although the form-driven installation is meant to echo what happens in the photographs, it comes off looking over-designed and artsy.

Putting such a high priority on formalist design goes hand in hand with the idea that bigger is better. Both approaches puff things up because they have little faith in the value of everyday experiences and direct perceptions.

That’s the territory Blumberg traverses in his unpretentious works, which invite viewers to participate in the little mysteries that make the ordinary world seem extraordinary. The light touch, deft step and casual demeanor his best photographs embody suggest that he’s just doing his job, which happens to fascinate him. The attitude is infectious -- and sometimes inspiring, in the manner of a journeyman who loves what he does even if no one notices.

Space expands and contracts in many of Blumberg’s images. Some, made up of more than 100 tiny pictures of urban and natural landscapes, transform the jittery visual energy of David Hockney’s photo collages into an experience of Zen stillness. To look at Hockney’s signature images, your eye must dart back and forth as if it were a fly zigzagging through the air. In contrast, Blumberg’s tile-like arrangements of snapshots of a Roman aqueduct, the Pompidou Center, Inyo Crater and Convict Lake compel you to stand still as the focus of your vision expands. Looking at these works makes you feel as if your visual field were a pond into which Blumberg had tossed a pebble, and then left you alone to watch the water ripple outward.

Time doesn’t stand still in his art as much as it spirals around shifting focal points. In Blumberg’s Sequential Color series, he cuts several photographs into thin strips and pastes them between the lines of pages torn from ordinary legal pads. Turning the world into a drama glimpsed through Venetian blinds, these works load single moments with events of considerably longer durations.

In other series, Blumberg glues color snapshots atop page-size black-and-white images or juxtaposes photographs whose scale shifts force your eye to operate as if it were a zoom lens. Like John Baldessari, Blumberg treats the world as if it were so loaded with meaning that it’s impossible to know it completely.

But that doesn’t cause him to set his sights lower or to focus on more manageable goals. His In Front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral series, which depicts ordinary folks before a black background, makes a mess of balanced compositions and sensible perspectives to suggest that the world is weirder than we usually assume. All you have to do is look closely.

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In contrast to more famous artists, Blumberg never lets a single line of inquiry become a line of products, maintained for the market long after the questions they began with have been answered. If his photographs lack the earth-shattering originality of masterpieces, they more than make up for it with the fresh look they bring to mundane surroundings. Based in the nitty-gritty details of real things, Blumberg’s photographs give us a glimpse of the big picture without ever letting us forget that it’s made up of messy inconsistencies -- both happy accidents and unresolvable conundrums.

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‘Donald Blumberg’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

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When: Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, noon to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Wednesdays.

Ends: Jan. 5, 2003

Price: Adults $7; students and seniors $5; children $1; children under 5, free

Contact: (323) 857-6000

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