by Ray Zone
(Artscape, Long Beach) In an exhibition space that combines both fine and functional art, sculptor Todd Muffatti has mounted an homage to the early days of television with a series of wooden wall-hung sculptures of TV screens. The individual pieces are relatively small, as were the earliest televisions, and are very well crafted with mixed media. There is an artisanlike charm in these objects that counters and humanizes the technology that they reference.
To make wood and metal objects out of what otherwise is seen as a virtual, electronic image, a whirl of charged phosphors emitting light, is a technological step backward. This retrograde craftsmanship is applied both to the "box" of the TV as well as the images seen within the "tube" itself. Under Muffatti's hand, an icon such as the staring eye of the early CBS logo becomes a series of stacked and painted flat wood planes within the "screen" of the object. The effect is pleasantly disconcerting and childlike. And it reminds one of all the times in which art has transposed an object and its medium, familiar examples ranging from Meret Oppenheim's cup of fur, to Claes Oldenburg's collapsed typewriter, to the playful reconstructions of Red Grooms.
As a child, Muffatti's parents took him to a television studio in New York to see the production of a TV program. It created an impression which never left him. There was an excitement, a sense of new frontiers and the cutting edge, to television in those days. Decades later Muffatti's work conveys this aura of newness and childlike awe. At the age of sixteen the young Muffatti constructed elaborately detailed model television studios in remembrance of his odyssey. These technological doll-houses foreshadow all of the artist's later work, from architectural assemblages, delightful skyscraper chairs created for cognoscenti, to his scenic designs for many repertory theatres nationwide. For many years, Muffatti was Professor of Scene Design for the Department of Theatre and Dance at California State University Fullerton.
Muffatti's use of architectural space and scenic designs comes into play with his recreation of the sets from early TV shows such as The Honeymooners. These works in particular display a love of the miniature. They are cultural timepieces, TV dollhouses for adults that serve as springboards back in time.
The appealing simplicity of Muffatti's TV assemblages mirror the primitive days of television's infancy, which they salute. Their childlike allure is well-suited to the subject matter, as with the work Fran's Pals, an homage to the Kukla, Fran and Ollie children's program of the 1950's. Josephine is a particularly clever piece which depicts that redoubtable plumber (pushing "Comet" cleanser) on an unstable TV screen with vertical roll.
Repeatedly the motif of the window, or space within space, is invoked in these works. The framing device of the television window within the wooden box sets this up nicely. But the artist takes this idea a step further in a work such as Finale, in which successive television sets recur within each other going back into space, an "infinity" motif with a hall-of-mirrors effect that makes reference to the reflexive nature of our experience of television as a collective, cultural memory.