Friday, January 25, 2013

large and small

Sometimes I get myself tied up in knots over questions that, in the end, seem pretty simple. Much of my thinking in the past couple of weeks has been almost Gordian in nature. It all started with a simple question from a friend to whom I was describing the challenges posed by working small (I was working on some 6" x 8" panels). What, she asked, is the difference between your small pieces and your large ones?

How are small pieces different from large (other than the obvious fact of size)? I had never stopped to ask, at least in terms of my present work. There are clearly two parts to the question: differences in process, and differences in product. It was the former with which I had been concerned, but the latter came to mind almost immediately.

Researcher that I am (25 years as a librarian doesn't fade quickly), I turned to my favorite sources of art wisdom to see what they had to say. Robert Genn has addressed size in his twice-weekly newsletter, but from the opposite end of the process: choosing the right size of canvas for the subject matter. In my case, the subject matter (such as it is) grows out of the process, and there is no predefinition to determine what size of panel to use.

I then searched Rebecca Crowell's informative blog for related discussions. In February 2008, she addressed the topic of size:

When I paint something large, I love the sense of being surrounded by the paint...while the challenge is to make something that justifies its own scale. I feel there needs to be something monumental about the piece, that will hold up in its largeness, over time and repeated viewings. 
Very small paintings have to be intriguing enough to withstand close-up viewing -- to have presence though occupying little physical space. It's really pleasurable for me to give due importance to slight shifts in color or texture, or to a few lines or some interesting mark -- and to bring that appreciation to viewers, whose faces will likely be inches rather than feet away from the work. 
In between these extremes are paintings (with) medium dimensions (30”x28”). I think the challenge here is to rise above what seems an ordinary or expected kind of scale. To stand out in a world of objects of similar size -- not just other works of art, but all the things in ordinary homes and buildings that vie for visual attention -- windows, computer screens, furnishings. While this presents a challenge, it's also a strength -- this is an accessible scale, that requires no special exhibition space, and feels comfortable to people as an object to contemplate. 

Rebecca's thoughts were helpful, but I still felt caught up in questions such as, can small pieces be anything but decorative? Small paintings have to relate to their surroundings in a way that a large piece does not, precisely because the edges are part of the viewer's experience: A 6"x6" panel cannot surround anything. Can I create a small abstract painting that also has meaning?

It is perhaps part of the phenomenon of midwinter blues that I let this whole subject bother me probably more than it should have. (It didn't help that I wasn't happy with the 6" x 8" pieces.) How could I avoid small pieces being denigrated from "art" to "decor"? Then finally, walking back into the house from the studio yesterday, I realized that I was letting "product" get ahead of "process" and intent, and it all became quite simple. If my intention, with all pieces of all sizes, is to fulfill my artist statement (see post of October 17th), then the product will flow from that intention, and although Rebecca's points remain completely valid, as does the "decorative" issue, my purpose/intention remains primary, and the other issues secondary and, with luck, not dominant.

I'm still not happy with the 6" x 8" pieces, but I've set them aside for the moment. The image above is of my most recent finished piece, 24" x 18", as yet untitled.

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