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Miniature Golf as Art? I'm Not Buying It

How's this for conceptual art? Invite more than a dozen artists — some working individually, some as teams — to create interactive installations, each inspired by a hole of miniature golf. Devote a museum's prime display space to the results and call it art. Sit back and watch as people fall for it, shelling out money they would normally pay to look at real art, while they instead play indoor mini golf with their kids.

This is pretty much what the Boca Raton Museum of Art has done for "Big Art: Miniature Golf," a suite of 11 self-contained installations by artists from Boca, Miami, and Jacksonville, as well as places as far-flung as California, Hawaii, Kansas, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Rhode Island. It's either the most naive move by a South Florida art institution this summer or the most cynical.

Any one of these installations — the better ones, anyway — might work as a component in another group show, where there were aesthetic concerns more ambitious and thoughtful than a round of mini golf at work. Take Alex Heffesse's Chasm, for instance, with its wooden armature strung with twine to support 352 golf balls that form a sort of corridor leading to a chalice at one end — it's a visually arresting composition, and it's weirdly reminiscent of those little desktop contraptions where you set a line of suspended metal balls into what seems like perpetual clacking motion.

Then there's Spiral Ramps, an ingenious multitiered construction by four Los Angeles artists who collectively call themselves Aphidoidea. It takes as its inspiration the famously daunting freeway system in Southern California and uses it to comment on the role chance plays in life in a major metropolitan area.

Golf in the Swamp With John Muir, by Miami artists Sri Prabha and Charles Falarara, similarly riffs on the Florida peninsula and the well-known naturalist's travels in the swamps here in 1867. It's a one-joke affair, but it resonates locally, especially the idea of representing Lake Okeechobee as a water trap.

Taken together in a museum context, however, the installations don't really add up. The whole enterprise seems more than a little silly, a desperate ploy to draw people into the museum during a long, hot summer. You'd be better off taking the kids down to the Lego show at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.

Someone behind the scenes must have sensed the conceptual thinness, because we're thrown a few scraps of real art at the beginning. Gary Erbe's Golf in Winter is a whimsical, life-sized oil of a set of golf clubs on a snowy course. Will Barnet's Yellow Cart, taken from a series of sports-related paintings, is really a formal portrait of the artist's daughter and grandson, one of whom sits in a golf cart. There are also paintings by Robert Vickrey and the great American impressionist Childe Hassam.

But it's really the show-within-the show "A Little Birdie Told Me" that delivers for those of us who go to museums actually expecting to see art. This miniature exhibition of 17 works is squirreled away to the side of the main show, but it has some fine works by Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Philip Pearlstein, Man Ray, and James Rosenquist and one stunning photo of New York's Flatiron Building by German artist Wolf von dem Bussche. This little show offers the relief one might typically look for at the 19th hole.

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Michael Mills

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