Is big always better?

Odilon Redon's Gnome, 1879

Odilon Redon, Gnome, 1879; one of the many smaller prints in the exhibition

It’s not in dispute that today the trend in art is for large, often very large, canvases and prints intended to dominate a wall if not a whole space. It seems more and more we have moved away from art as an intimate exchange between the work and the viewer and into one of physical and emotional distance. Perhaps this is indicative of the trajectory of our culture overall: we have become increasingly isolated from each other, separated by technology that gives the illusion of connecting while keeping us apart. For the masses, true intimacy has become if not impossible then at least uncomfortable, and thus we rely instead on artifice. The art we choose follows suit, reduced to pure decoration, selected not because it speaks to us emotionally or challenges us intellectually but because the size (and expense) impresses our friends, the colour goes well with the couch, or the art resembles something seen in an interior design magazine. Thus, if a visual artist wants to sell it seems they have to produce these huge, benign works, but what if an artist still also wishes to challenge, or prefers not to dominate but to invite intimacy with his/her audience? Is there still a place for either anymore?

These questions have been central to conversations I’ve been having with increasing frequency with gallery owners and fellow artists as I struggle with whether or not to invest in a larger printer: I’ve been frustrated artistically with the limitations of my printer and have lost a few sales to clients who wanted something larger, and yet I don’t believe all my images are intended for a larger canvass. Some images, I believe, have (paradoxically) greater impact as intimate pieces, yet the market keeps pressuring me to go big, bigger, biggest. What to do?

This issue arose again two days ago when I visited the Art Gallery of Alberta—an amazing piece of architecture that opened last year in downtown Edmonton—and viewed “The Symbolist Muse:  A Selection of Prints From the National Gallery of Canada.” The exhibit features late nineteenth-century works from the likes of Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Max Klinger, Karl Moll, Max Kurzweil, with the majority of the prints no larger than about 14” x 17” and many as small as a postcard. These were intimate works that drew me close and encouraged me to contemplate the play of light and shadow, the texture of the ink strokes and paper, the minute details hidden in the artist’s tableau. The works were striking both in their technical execution and their emotional value, and I left the gallery inspired. I left thinking how I’d love to go small, smaller, smallest—but I suspect if I did I’d wouldn’t sell a one. How frustrating.

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