Searching for the Small

September 9th, 2008 § 0 comments

When Gregory used to say, “think big” he did not always mean literally, generally he was referring to a concept, idea, or initial interest, but most often it was accompanied by an expectation that as the idea grew so would the image—great ideas are looming in stature, he seemed to say. Though being forced away from a comfortable size was a necessary conclusion to my thesis, I still look for the place of small work in the contemporary art museums and the various galleries that now surround me. I wonder who manages to make small work and how they get away with it. Partly from a deep attachment to, and a convinced importance of, smaller images, and partly because they are so scarce. While at the art fairs in Miami Beach last December I noticed, at Basel most of all, there were very few images that spanned less than two feet. Though there is a relation between monetary value and size, there also seems to be an aesthetic and intellectual shift away from smaller works. Money and technology must be prominently responsible, but I would still argue that a different source of dislike for the small exists—one I feel is more significant as a viewer, and not as a buyer, of images. It goes back to the idea that grand ideas are grandly scaled, one that is almost as archaic as containing a painting within a gaudy, gold frame. With art institutions favoring “ambitious” ideas, and with the art market catering to large photographs of ambitious ideas, it is no wonder small images of “ordinary” things are far less popular.

The first small images I found somewhat recently belonged to Philip-Lorca diCorcia. In a show filled with large, glossy photographs of male prostitutes and pole dancers, hidden cameras and self-absorbed New Yorkers, it was his piece, 1,000 Polaroids, that I enjoyed most. The whole experience was interesting, as though he actually thought about the images and their presentation. A slide projector looped with his narration flipped through the images in a semi-dark space. Sitting on a bench, I listened to him talk about quantity and its lack of meaning in the face of the digital, and his sense of accomplishment in producing 1,000 Polaroids. What I liked about them was the sort of mental editing they elicited in their viewers, as they flashed by some were gorgeous, some were completely ordinary, some seemed like snapshots, and all were impressions. His eye and his surroundings were presented succinctly through what seemed like an excess of images—they reflected his own sense of wonder. What does my life look like, I thought to myself, would it have trees like that, people like that, places so boring and places so lovely? Next to the projection were the images themselves, lined up in rows and leaning against the wall. Wrapping around the corner, they were impossible to see at once, and impossible to see one at a time. They self-edited themselves into batches as your eye roved the space, a color or a gesture would catch you and pull you close, and the specificity pushed you back again to looking in rows, groups, and sections. I left reassured that small works can still find a place, even if it is stuck in a corner behind larger prints.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia

The latest and last show of smaller works was surprisingly at the Whitney, my least favorite place to visit in the city but who, grudgingly, puts together (on occasion) some mismatched and somewhat worthwhile exhibitions—even then it is not always worth braving the upper east side residents. My favorite room there, in fact the only space that seems to make any kind of architectural sense, is a small room with glass doors only accessible from the back stairs of the permanent collection. This time they were showing Mapplethorpe’s black & white Polaroids. There was a bit of what I expected, and I unfortunately did not have time to warn the Fossil, but those that were not of couples were quite captivating. I was struck by how beautiful and plain they were, how simple and yet complicated the imagery was, and how moving these paradoxes were. The scenes were simple—flowers on a pillow, shadows and reflections, objects resting—and yet they resonated more deeply than his controversial images dealing with sexuality. From an artist I know so well and have never really liked, I wish I had seen these images before. They were nostalgic as they reminded me of images I used to make, in essence not in particulars. Here again I was happily surprised to find smaller works, both literally and metaphorically, even though they still seem to lurk in the shadow of other images.

Mapplethorpe

Though I feel inspired again towards defying the rules of the rule-makers, I now have to rethink how smaller images can be used in my own body of work. I wonder if you have to follow the rules for a while before you can break them, or if I am back to, you can make it just don’t show it.

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