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Nothing is left out

MINOR art has its own special advantages. It is usually more intimate, delicate, and charming than major productions and lends itself especially well to whimsy, sentiment, and fanciful allusions. The artist who fashions it need not worry as much as his or her more serious-minded colleagues about significance and deeper meanings and can concentrate on creating delightful effects, or on communicating a private and imaginary vision of the world. Minor art can also, of course, be thought-provoking and solemn, or even inspirational, and can insist it's as important and grand as any other form of art. Then, however, it often tends to be a bit strained or pompous, to ``frown'' too hard or to insist too strenuously on its seriousness and good intentions. Like a rather poor actor attempting the role of Hamlet, it may appear too dressed up, be too solemn and heavy-handed, and may waste its energies trying to convince us of its profundity rather than allowing us to judge for ourselves on the basis of its performance.

As a rule, however, this kind of art is successful precisely because it knows well what it is and is not, and knows how to maintain a balance between what it wants to communicate and the range of its resources.

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Interestingly enough, major artists often delight in creating it, either as a diversion or as a way of giving form to ideas and impulses deemed inappropriate for their more serious endeavors. Thus, Leonardo drew caricatures, D"urer made fanciful illustrations, Rubens designed ceremonial banners, Lautrec decorated menus, Kokoschka painted fans, and Calder fashioned jewelry. In addition, Picasso produced large numbers of free-spirited sketches and prints that were never intended to be taken very seriously, and Dubuffet turned out charming collages made up of such things as butterfly wings and newspaper clippings.

There are also many paintings, prints, and three-dimensional objects that were lovingly, even exquisitely, made and that constitute a separate category of art existing somewhere between what is bought for the museums and what is bought for the pleasure it brings. These include portraits of children and of pets that achieve a kind of whimsical if somewhat self-conscious monumentality, thanks to the studiously solemn manner in which they were portrayed; fanciful decorative canvases that fuse superb craftsmanship, a wry sense of humor, and an often astonishing feeling for color; and imaginatively conceived and beautifully constructed sculptures that depict in detail the people, places, and events that constitute our everyday world.

All of these works were intended as art, and all have at least some of the characteristics of art. They are ``serious,'' honest, well crafted, and life-enhancing. They are also charming and often great fun. Some, indeed, will eventually make it into the museums, if not perhaps as ``significant'' art, then certainly as something a little bit higher up the scale than ``minor.''

Ray Cusie's intricately detailed and realistically colored wood and metal reconstructions of New York City's streets, storefronts, houses, and sidewalk activities are excellent examples of this kind of art. Every one is a precisely rendered portrait of a particular place -- usually in one of the city's less fashionable neighborhoods. Each includes every brick, window, stenciled sign, cast iron ornament, and rusty drainpipe of the original. He even puts in the illusion of light behind tightly shut windows, the effects of successive layers of paint on old wood, and messages scrawled by graffiti writers. Nothing is left out, either in the construction or during its subsequent painting.

A typical work consists of several attached buildings constituting a third to a half of a city block. In its center we might find a small neighborhood grocery store complete with signs, window displays, and a crack in the faade. Flanking it might be a boarded-up barbershop and the stoop of an apartment building. And beyond them, a laundry or restaurant, a vacant and very cluttered lot, or the front of another run-down apartment building. Fronting this complex would be the ever-busy sidewalk, steps leading down to basements, stray animals, rows of garbage cans, discarded furniture, and just about anything else one might find in front of one of New York's older rows of buildings.

All this would be carefully and lovingly painted and textured to duplicate the original as closely as possible. Bits of fabric, glass, tin, wire, brick, and carved wood would be added to give it the final authenticating touch needed to make it truly a portrait -- and a character study -- of an actual place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, or the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Cusie's obvious affection for his subjects, his extraordinary attention to detail, and the open, noncritical manner in which he depicts everything his eye encounters lift these constructions beyond the realm of mere scale models and place them into the category of respectable, if somewhat modest, art.

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