New York

Charles Simonds and Mary Miss

The first of MoMA’s projects galleries was filled with the miniature dwellings and geography of Charles Simonds’ Little People, an ancient civilization born in his mind around 1970. Among the hills, dried out waterholes, sacred sites marked with sticks, and half-ruined roads and pathways were an evolutionary network of dwellings ranging from V-shaped caves in the earth to adobelike clusters, circular and spiral remains of dwellings, and a modestly citylike complex in the far corner.

The work’s real frame was a look through one of the two sets of binoculars mounted at eye level at the room’s entrance. Binoculars’ low magnification remains well within the boundaries (and concepts) of normal perception, only bringing the distant closer. But Simonds’ binoculars, a few disarming feet from their subject, shifted the viewer out of the museum scale of things into an uncannily close examination of villages’ bricks and rutted paths and cairns; their oval translated the meager dimensions at hand into a pocket of civilization glimpsed for the first time from the height of some arduous mountain pass. The analogy which immediately comes to mind is the American Southwest. But Simonds has told me that when he made structures in North Africa people immediately associated them with ruins on their continent, just as when he built dwellings on the Iberian peninsula the Spaniards recalled seeing such castles in Spain.

In a plaque keyed to the installation and in statements made elsewhere (Three Peoples, Art/Cahier 2, Artforum, February 1974) Simonds has interpreted the architecture. The builders of circular dwellings yearly integrate group energy in a winter solstice collective dance, orgasm, and reaffirmation; the spiral people aspire upward with mathematical precision and growing depression; the linear people are constant migrants (their more audacious branches wandering through SoHo and the Lower East Side); and the walled cities’ people are functionally oriented specialists.

A complex culture, reduced to microfiche, so to speak, but capable of expansion into full-blown fantasy. In Landscape–Body–Dwelling, 1971, 1973, Simonds allowed the Little People to encroach on body as well as mind, by building a clay landscape and dwelling place on his own prone body. Jonathan Swift’s real-life fellow 18th-century gentlemen often carried when traveling a Claude Glass, a convex smoked glass to miniaturize and improve with “old master” tints the landscapes passing by their carriages. Simonds’ building has been accused of catering to this kind of comfortable reduction to the picturesque. I disagree: I think Simonds is describing some basic social forms. Dis proportion gives distance to see clearly. Simonds’ sensual delight in the various groups of Little People has little of Swift’s venom, but his accessibility is no more a vice than Paolo Soleri’s remote location for Arcosanti is a virtue.

This accessibility tends to make large-scale projects in odd contexts practicable. Project Uphill, a play ground development on Second Street between Avenues A and B, was completed by Simonds in a wordstorm of controversy. His Hanging Gardens proposal to convert the skeletons of two abandoned high rises at Breezy Point Gateway National Park is now under serious consideration by the vested interests. His Growth House, made of earth suffused with seeds, was built, grown, and, I presume, eaten. Such rare serendipity is not to be sneezed at.

Mary Miss’ untitled sculpture was around the corner further along the Projects corridor. From the side it appeared an ungainly plywood box, 91/2 feet wide, 7 1/2 feet high, and 6 1/2 feet deep, abutting the corridor wall and raised by runners a few inches off the floor. Four transverse plywood boards painted. silver in front and black on the edge and back protruded from the raw plywood forming the box’s side. These four boards averaged about 18 inches distance from each other and jutted about six inches out from the box’s sides and top.

The front opened up into a progression. Two immovable “doors” of silver-painted plywood flanked the wide opening. Floor, ceiling, and back wall of the box were black, the transverse plywood boards coming in at a right angle were silver, with supporting frame and runners raw. Despite the side view’s four boards, the interior was layered with five symmetrical sets of boards; each pair, from the front to the back, came about six inches closer together. The final set of boards were only a few inches apart. The entire structure was sturdily built and accessible to entry. But the dramatically shortened perspective brought on by these serial objects brought physically closer made the surround claustrophobic after a few moments’ stay.

The pressures of Miss’ spaces are shaped by their receding series of progressively altered surrounding material. The five boards at 50-foot intervals with aligned holes diminishing in size and distance from the ground in her Battery Park landfill piece suspended a tapering column of air for the properly situated viewer. Her ten-minute film Cut-Off, made in Michigan, demonstrated in time what other pieces have worked out in space. Three men dug a trench, widening and deepening it systematically in a three-stage progression. Though the process took all day, the film condensed the essential information for the viewer much as her recent constructions telescope space.

Perspective is an unbeatable shorthand for distance; we take it for granted that train tracks don’t obligingly and actually begin to converge on the horizon. Of course in Miss’ art they do. One of her baldest satires on optic laws is Sapping, 1975—a plywood corridor each of whose three succeeding sections is abruptly narrower and higher. It’s harder to saunter into that corridor than into your average cul-de-sac, and once inside the optics invite the intruder to step (hastily) outside. Lucas Samaras’ mirrored-surface corridors multiply images receding into a pleasant approximation of infinity; Miss gives infinity considerably shorter rein.

Barbara Baracks