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Subjects of life, larger than life


There's no irony apparent when David A. Little says he's a simple guy, fascinated by simple things.

"Simple" might belong in quotes, considering the sort of work Little's been doing since he was a student at Maryland Institute College of Art in the early 1980s. He was the wiry fellow, the one putting a ladder on a table and climbing it to reach the top of that monstrous canvas he was painting in his senior year.

The work has changed since then, but not in the direction of evident simplicity, if one can judge from the stuff Little has on exhibit at Maryland Art Place through Feb. 16. The smallest of the four drawings in pastel, charcoal and conte crayon on paper measures nearly 10-by-11 feet, and even at that size, the imagery seems to strain the edges, pressing to meet you where you stand.

Perhaps "drawing" should be in quotes, too, as Little tests the border between drawing and installation. At Maryland Art Place, where the ceilings are 14 feet high, two of the four pieces spill onto the floor. Each composition is made of several sheets of heavy watercolor paper, some comprising up to a dozen pieces fit together, and not necessarily making a rectangle. Sometimes a sheet juts out from this side or that. The contours of these drawings would look like the outlines of certain Midwestern states.

"There are times when a rectangle is appropriate," says Little, who teaches at the institute. "But there are times when it's not appropriate for what I want to include."

Little only wants to include much of life experience: space, time, memory, story-telling. Hearing Little talk about what he's trying to capture on paper might bring to mind the interlocking simultaneity of events in the opening of the movie, Magnolia. The cup runneth over. "In life there's so much going on," says Little. "I'm just trying to get my bearings on it."

So, too, it takes the viewer time to grasp Little's drawings. Step back. Step back again. And again.

Human figures, life size and larger, populate this hallucinatory other-world alongside machines with features suggesting human personalities. The space is fractured, defined by architectural detail if not architectural principles. Floor becomes wall, becomes atmosphere, or drops away altogether. A chunk of stone arch yields to a massive column studded with branches. Stairways appear, leading into shadow. An expanse of chain link fence suggests a menacing web. Forget Renaissance perspective. Even M.C. Escher's spatial puzzles seem orderly next to Little's pictures.

They've been compared to the vaulting interiors of 18th-century Italian Giovanni Battista Piranesi, but Little dismisses the comparison. Piranesi, an architect as well as an engraver, followed architectural perspective even in his most fanciful images. If there's perspective in Little's drawings, it's more emotional than pictorial: a glimpse through the lens of memory.

"A lot of my work is a response to places I've been," says Little. "I was always intrigued by my grandmother's house." The Victorian house outside Boston stands in Little's recollection as an assemblage of stained glass, shadowed nooks and crannies, at once welcoming and spooky. "I liked going there but it creeped me out," he says. (He grew up in a small town in Connecticut.)

Little would place the viewer into the shoes of a kid finding his way through a big, creepy house. Hence the large scale. "I like the work to involve all the peripheral vision," Little says. "The work is experience-based. You enter it."

This complicates matters in Little's studio, as the ceilings are not high enough to get an entire drawing on a wall at once. Little is constantly pinning the sheets up, taking them down, figuring out how one thing relates to another. Fortunately, his studio roost above the New Systems Bakery in Hampden has enough floor space (1,200 square feet) to allow him to step back far enough without having to lean out a window.

"Very rarely do I succumb to practical things," says Little, quite aware that the complications of working this way also extend to the marketplace. "I almost never get to exhibit."

The drawings are priced between $5,000 and $12,000 apiece, but that hardly seems to matter. "It's impossible to sell," says Jack Rasmussen, executive director of MAP. "He could give you the drawing for free, it would cost you $10,000 to frame it."

Rasmussen has exhibited Little's stuff before, in a 1999 show in which artists were asked to draw directly on the gallery walls. The current group show revolves around ideas about portraiture, but Little's work stands apart."[His work is] kind of unlike just about anything else," says Rasmussen. "David is really doing something odd."

It's some parts Renaissance grandiosity, some parts dreamscape and remembered place. Little would have you linger awhile: "It's not going to be the kind of thing that unfolds immediately," he says. "I'm trying to take that ethereal image in my head and make it solid."

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