Robert Therrien's Table
Art Connoisseur

Art Essay: When it comes to these sculptures, bigger is better

By the time you read this, Robert Therrien's exhibition of monumental sculptures of recognizable objects will have been on display for some time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The critics will have weighed in, and positively, for the contemporary artist is a nice guy and one of those "artist's artists'" who doesn't exhibit all that often and who everybody likes to think they're discovering, even if he's been renowned for two decades now. The public will like the show, too, because it's hard not to like this fun batch of work. The happiest of all will be the school kids, the ones who you never see at LACMA because the museum buses them in early, before the man gates open at 11 a.m. The tykes will giggle at Therrien's 18-foot-tall fake beards, they'll get the joke about his rain clouds tapped with faucets, they'll plead to lie down on the 38-foot-long spiraling beds. The kids' chaperones will peek at Therrien's teetering 94-inch-high pile of plates and bowls and use it as a parable to remind their charges to wash their dirty dishes and do their other chores at home. And the most talked-about work in the exhibition will be the 9'x9" x 18' x 26' "Under the Table." Guaranteed, the kids will want to climb on it. And we suspect, so will you. Security will have their hands full.

Awe of size is universal. Living in larger-than-life Los Angeles, it's easy to think of bulk as an American concept: The Texas oilman. Abe Lincoln's hat. The Louisiana Purchase -- that sort of thing. Think back, though. The Eight Wonders of the World were all massive, full of Great Pyramids and Colossi of Rhodes, hardly a 3rd Street Promenade tourist strip "Your Name on a Grain of Rice" among them. In Greek mythology, Hercules' labors included diverting a river to clean a messy stable. A few years aback, Malaysians were so desperate to possess the world's tallest building that they added a radio tower to an edifice that fell just short -- a pathetic display of size-envy. Skyscrapers themselves were proof that metal had replaced mythology; in our computer age today, the Tower of Babel has shrunk further, disappearing into a microchip. While the world seems to be so much bigger, our own lives seem smaller. We grow up so quickly and so world-weary and aware. Is the awe disappearing?

The space Robert Therrien lives and works in, not surprisingly, is a huge one -- a 7,000-square-foot, two-story spot in a particularly industrial part of downtown L.A. One of his neighbors is a shipping company. A former neighbor was an armory for a gun maker; the place was commandeered by the LAPD during the 1992 riots. Before here, Therrien lived in two other Los Angeles neighborhoods. From place to place, he's lugged with him a nondescript table-and-chair set. It's at this table Therrien sits a visitor down and serves him water in a green plastic tumbler; here where the pair talk art and the city; here where he shows off Polaroids of all his works, and Polaroids of works that never became works. ("Potential sculptures," he calls them.) After a while, it occurs to the visitor: We're sitting down at the table and chairs. The very model for "Under the Table." Damn. Some celebrities are so unpretentious.

The first time "Under the Table" was exhibited publicly was four years ago at a warehouse on the border between San Diego and Tijuana. As soon as the guard walked away, Therrien recalls, visitors would climb the gargantuan chairs. Legend has it that some rollerbladers went to the top of the table and did a hockey-style jump stop at one of the edges, scratching it. Curator Joanne Heyler of Santa Monica-based Broad Art Foundation says she's been topside, too. "I have to admit, at his invitation, I got up on his chairs," Heyler says. The Foundation owns 17 of Therrien's pieces, including "Table," and from 1997-1999 the work was on display in a room built specifically for it. Helyer was inspired: "I came away thinking, 'It would be great if all crucial international treaties could be signed at a table like that.'"

Now if only everyone could have that same chance, maybe we would have some sort of revolution in perception on our hands. Sitting in his studio, his hands resting on the regular-sized table, which served as the monumental model, the artists says is it were up to him, people could climb all they want. "I wouldn't car," Therrien says. "Except that it doesn't belong to me anymore. It belongs to the Broads. More happens to it in transport and moving it around than when people climb on it."

More happens to the table and chairs, and more importantly in this "It's a small world" of six degrees of separation and closing, more happens to all of us museumgoers, who could use a little more perspective in our lives. We know that those schoolkids visiting LACMA will tackle Robert Therrien's Table. Here's hoping some grow-ups to it, too, if for not other reason than, as Sir Edmund Hilary might have said, the Table is there.