The recent coincidence of New York exhibitions by Charles Simonds and Nils Norman mark intriguing differences in the means and ends of the sculptural strategy of miniaturization. In his show at Joseph Helman gallery, Simonds gives us the latest developments in his 30-year-old subject -- tiny clay-built ruins of imaginary "little people." Norman, whose work was on view at American Fine Arts, makes architectural models of utopian communities. Both artists image nonexistent societies, one as a future prospect, the other as a mysterious past.
Simonds' worlds are unpeopled, yet he evokes a primitive aboriginal and communal past, roughly modeling his forms on Anasazi cliff dwellings of the southwestern U.S., with later admixture of what looks like Chinese military architecture.
He is an exceptionally able artist in clay, enthralled with his mimetic capacity. In this new work, his empty dwellings have become alive in themselves. They twist and turn like the organic spaceships of the cult film Buckaroo Banzai, looking like cliff dwellings on asteroids. The shape of his rock formations in red and gray clay twist and meld with the architecture of the houses. Like Charles Burchfield's painted animism, Simonds molds faces in his rocks. In his houses there are window eyes and door mouths. In other works, his signature tiny bricks form the skins of saguaro cacti cut and hung on the wall.
There's a lot to say formally about this work. Within an art based in meticulous hand operations of a tiny nature, like the women's art of embroidery, Simonds engineers spectacular intersections of earth and wall. There's also a digital turn to his form. Like the computer narrative games of invented worlds that have sprung up since he began (e.g., Myst), Simonds distorts his worlds away from gravity so that folds now turn paths upside down under his cliffs.
But what interests me is the social roots of Simonds' work. He was close to the late sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark during Soho's salad days in the 1970s. Later he lived with Lucy Lippard and became friendly with Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt. He constructed his tiny-brick buildings on the streets in the Lower East Side as performances, and once refused to show in the Whitney Museum since his real work was on the street. (All this is from a Jeu de Paume exhibition catalogue of 1995.)
He got his start during the era of the counterculture when communes were spread throughout the country, and his objects may be seen as a metaphor for their recession. French writers link his work to the economic and social imaginings the French sculptors Anne and Patrick Poirier.
Like Constant, the Situationist architect and theorist whose fantastic vision of model cities embodying a unitary urbanism devolved into a mode of Abstract Expressionist painting, Simonds became entranced by his imitations, and absorbed into the nature of his materials. He embraced the formal pitch of his forming as an artist, in the process era of sculpture, the New York Post-minimal moment where content was allowed but not a link with the social processes that content may imply. He is a miniaturist Earth Artist, a nostalgist of a vanished community naturalized as myth.
Norman also invents worlds, but his roots are not archaeology, fantasy or myth. Rather, the young British artist's business is planning and imaging a utopian future. In his show at AFA, titled "Dismal Gardens," he showed tiny models of vehicles. In one of these dioramas, a bus, improbably containing a vegetable garden, disgorges another vehicle. This is a bicycle towing a trailer, what Norman calls a "Winstanley vehicle," containing a mobile library on gardening, squatting and utopian philosophies. (The full-scale vehicle was the subject of a previous show by the artist here.)
These constructions are deployed on generic bases like house models submitted for a prospective client's approval. But here there is no client: Norman's tiny models are made "on spec," and the principal location of construction is the mind of his public.
Norman also shows an oddly imaged computer-made comic book story about the kinky relations between art and social change, with historical characters from past art worlds and activist movements. He opened his show with a wan-looking singer performing songs about the cruelties of today's art world, combining '70s utopic picturings with '90s sardonic despair.
According to the press release, Norman's tiny "info-bus," a literal vehicle of propaganda, is under construction. In this season of youthful excitement over the anti-globalization protests, and Europe's refusal to let the Kyoto protocols be forgotten by an American oilman president, Norman may find the means to actualize more of his miniature world.
Rather than wondering how to bronze his fantasies, Norman may have the chance Constant never had, that is, to get large.
ALAN MOORE is a New York art historian and critic.