Thursday, August 30, 2012

Artworks and Scale

I woke up this morning with an interesting idea. I had been preparing some panels for painting the previous day. The panels were 48x30, so they were larger than usual. I chose that size because the  panel needs to be appropriate to the subject matter, and to the manner in which I will paint it.

Paintings that are small tend to be more detail oriented, and paintings that are larger tend to be less detailed. Of course, exceptions exist, but this seem generally true. The subject matter I have in mind for these panels is not heavy on details, and it needs to be of a size that is large enough to create a visceral impact that depends on size. The impact I have in mind could be achieved at 48x30 or larger. It could probably be created at 38x24. But it could not be created at 8x10 size. At a certain point, the painting is too small.

This observation is obviously nothing new. The artist knows that size matters. Size matters because the size of the artist (their physical stature) and the size of the world we live… asserts a real effect on how we produce artwork. A painting that is 8x10 inches will never be painted like a painting that is 8x10 feet. The manner of working will be dictated by size. But again, this is nothing new.

But what did strike me as new was this thought… that not only are art works size-dependent in their construction, but they are size dependent in the viewing.

When the artist makes a small painting, he will make it with "smallness" as part of his vision of it. He will stand in front of that small canvas and view it as a small thing, and make marks based on it's small size, and so on, and so on. When he is done, he has a small painting. Not just physically small, but small in the manner underlying construction.

When the artist makes a large painting, he stands before a large canvas, and his decisions and working methods are direct responses to that large scale. The size of the brushes changes, the brushwork changes, the larger gesture of the body can be incorporated. Areas of the canvas become "broader" in their conception. Things can be included that might be left out of a small painting. Things might be left out of the larger that were part of the smaller. And so on. Again, the artist is constructing a LARGE painting… not just physically large, but large in  the manner of its construction.

This is interesting. Artworks are related to size… and not just their physical size, but all those manners of construction that derive from size. I will refer to these as the "CONCEPTUAL" size.  The conceptual size is related to their physical size, and includes all those manners of working that come into play at whatever size you're working at. Large paintings employer conceptions of largeness, small paintings employ conceptions of smallness.

This means that the artwork needs to be viewed IN PERSON. Viewing large artworks in smaller photographic reproduction removes the scale of the piece. I had been aware of this (obviously), but I always associated scale with simply the physical size. It never occurred to me that one's response to the painting was dictated not simply by it's physical size, but by the fact that the CONCEPTUAL size… in other words…  the those manners of painting dictated by physical size

Small artworks that are viewed in larger photographic reproduction have the same problem.

The upshot of this is that to truly view and understand a work of art, we must view it in person, so that the manner of it's construction (how it was painted) can be absorbed by us relative to the physical size it presents to us. That is how the artist saw it in construction, and so it is the only legitimate way to view it as intended.

The compressions and expansions of the image via photographic reproduction confuse the mind. Typically, the photos are smaller than the work, and so we lose all sense of the works size-dependent meanings… and these size dependencies are fundamental formal concerns. Without this, there is only an imaged, divorced from the conditions of it's construction. In a sense, the photos turn the painting into a photograph.

Among the several things that makes a painting different from a photograph, are JUST SUCH conditions upon it's construction. Not only do paintings derive from drawing (vs. the mechanical reproduction of the camera)… but the drawing itself derives from the scale of the work. Photographic methods do not rely on scale, and are incapable of depicting the scale. Without scale,  a major formal concern is removed… and with it, the work itself… except of the image.

But what is this image? Without the ability to convey the formal realities of the artwork, such an image dramatically misrepresents the reality of the artwork.

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