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Size Does Matter: Smaller Is Better

I've been enjoying the art of Richard Pettibone for years. His miniature versions of artworks by famous Pop artists, such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella, have the irresistible appeal of cute puppies that beg to be cuddled. The difference is that his tiny, meticulously executed paintings and sculptures--by virtue of being exhibited on museum walls--can be cuddled by your eyes only. The huge retrospective of Richard Pettibone's small paintings and sculptures (more than 200 of them) occupies, ironically, just a few small galleries at the Laguna Art Museum. Until seeing this thoroughly satisfying exhibition, I was not aware that his career extends back to the 1960's: that's when Pettibone started to craft his small-scale copies of the works of his contemporaries. Twenty years later, at the height of appropriation art of the 80's, Pettibone raised the bar even further by simultaneously paying homage to the artists he admired and, at the same time, poking fun at great icons of contemporary art. Looking at his double "portrait" of Marcel Duchamp's urinal and Andy Warhol's flowers, measured in just a few inches, one deals with multiple layers of history and irony, all wrapped into a smart, tiny package which delivers a message intriguingly disproportionate to its size.

The same can be said about another tongue-in-cheek collision of two tiny paintings: a Frank Stella wedged into a Roy Lichtenstein. It must be said that Pettibone demonstrates remarkable painterly skill, adopting the style of each artist he appropriates. His dedication to reproducing the original artwork knows no limits, going as far as to faithfully replicate even the stretcher bar of each particular painting. In another delicious gesture, the artist encapsulates the whole collection amassed by the Weisman family. Displayed in a freestanding, vertical museum vitrine, these miniature copies acquire the look and significance of exotic, rare butterflies, like those we like to examine in a Museum of Natural History.

If you visit the Ace Gallery's sprawling exhibition of paintings and photographs by Dennis Hopper like I did--a few days after seeing the Pettibone exhibition-- you will probably ask the same question: how could such a talented artist like Hopper make such wrong choices? And by that I mean pushing the scale of his paintings to not just huge, but to a humungous scale, which seemingly exceeds the size of a billboard. Only a month ago, I admired Hopper's small black and white photographs at the Pompidou Center where they are exhibited among the best artworks created in Los Angeles in the 1960's. In these remarkable photographs he captured the essence of the city, as well as the magic moment in the life of his friends when all of them were young, ambitious, talented, and most of them very good-looking. Some were already movie stars while others-- painters and sculptors--would become celebrities years later. In the past forty years these photographic images have not lost any of their freshness, and they show Hopper at his absolute top form. In my opinion, nothing that he's done since then, comes even close to his early achievements. An especially disappointing element in this exhibition is the dumbfounding size of paintings based on his earlier black and white photographs. These huge canvases are executed by professional billboard painters and are presented in two sizes: very big and then, even bigger. Maybe I'm not in on the joke, but if I were a friend of Dennis Hopper, I would do my uttermost to dissuade him from this vacuous exercise in vanity. As they say, size does matter and in this case, smaller is better.

Richard Pettibone: A Retrospective
Laguna Art Museum
307 Cliff Drive
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
On view through May 28

Dennis Hopper: A Survey
Ace Gallery Los Angeles
5514 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036
On view through July 1

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