8 Artists Making Small Paintings That Prove Size Isn’t Everything
The expectation that great art should be larger than life dates back to the origins of Modernism itself: Beaux-Art frames and salon-style (edge-to-edge) hangings gave way to Impressionism, expressionism and other movements that favored grand gestures and evoked the majesty of nature.
Today, a philosophy of bigger is better holds stubbornly, especially in the atavistic realm of painting, where working small often means sacrificing not only visual prominence but also higher profits. Still, haggling over smallness can be a way to stand out, and some contemporary painters are downsizing.
The next group of painters – who work on modestly sized canvases to emphasize detail, foster emotional intimacy, and challenge the conventions of viewer and owner of art – comprise a small but powerful minority.
At the height of monumental expressionism, Peter Dreher opted for small scales and mundane, inexpressive subjects: from 1974 he painted a realistic water glass every day, which culminated in his series historical “Tag Um Tag Ist Guter Tag”. (“Day after day, have a nice day”). By the time of his death in 2020, Dreher had produced around 5,000 iterations, each subject perfectly centered on an 8 x 10 inch canvas.
On the one hand, by devoting much of his practice to this seemingly rote act of repetition, Dreher negated the artistic mandate to enhance reality. But as installation photography from a 1996 survey of the project reveals, the modest physics of the individual paintings enabled their impressive cumulative potential.
Imbued with grayscale detail, Julia Maiuri’s 8 x 10 inch paintings of translucent eyes and faces transport and dislocate the viewer. Informed by writer Rosemary Jackson’s theory of confinement as a necessary device in modern fantasy tales, Maiuri’s technique both embraces and defies the constraints of her canvases. “Rather than depicting the architectural enclosures of Poe or Stoker, the canvas itself becomes an enclosure space,” Maiuri said, adding that “the layering of images adds enormous depth. … As a result, I find that work commands so much more attention and visual space in a room.
While the layered compositions channel the non-linear action of a Luis Buñuel film, achieving this piercing clarity on a 2D surface is no small feat: “I apply the paint in circular motions, blending, very repetitive way, in order to get those really subtle details”. says the artist. “Every month I have to restock my little brushes.”
Up to 10 square inches in size, Brazilian painter Adriel Visoto’s most recent paintings take direct inspiration from the silver screen. Using scenes from films shot in New York, including that of Martin Scorsese Taxi driver (1976), Larry Clark Kids (1995) and, yes, Penny Marshall Big (1988)—the pocket homages place Visoto in the role of both spectator and stranger. “I am interested in the object quality that paintings of this dimension acquire,” he said. “It’s also a way to create a more intimate relationship with the viewer since my work also deals with issues of intimacy.”
Although the artist portrays the quintessential “big city” with the help of the mass media it inspired, he has a unique perspective: the São Paulo-based painter has never actually visited New York, and his work favors interstitial planes and anonymizing angles. These strategies superimpose a dreamlike subjectivity on the famous source material. In one of 10 untitled works in Visoto’s 2022 exhibition “Solitude Souvenirs”, the painter portrays the teenage protagonist of Kids from behind. The character passively leans against a graffiti door buzzer, as if waiting for the next scene to begin.
While some small paintings seem to resist their physical limitations, others embrace them with concrete immediacy. This is the case with the work of Mia Middleton, a sculptor turned painter whose single-object still lifes offer a litany of strange and occasional encounters. The sobriety of his compositions intensifies the biunivocal dynamic of the art public, and the subjects correspond squarely to the titles of the paintings (for example, Slug, Shelland Bloodall 2022).
Yet Middleton’s work is far from realistic. The monochromatic backgrounds of his paintings place his subjects in the cloistered realm of the artist’s imagination, if not anywhere. “Most of my paintings are a composite of photography, life, and imaginary elements,” Middleton said. “Other times a composition emerges fully formed in my mind, like a vision.”
For artist Izzy Barber, who was born and raised in New York, painting from nature requires a second pair of hands: “I often paint at night, so my boyfriend goes with me,” she said. Explain. “He’s like my bodyguard.” The small formats of the canvases that the barbers drag – a dozen at a time, she says – echo the narrowness of the enclosures (bars, metro cars) that she documents, and her rapid brushstrokes channel the harassed monotony from the city.
These elements are particularly striking when Barber hangs several pieces together, as in M&BI trains (2021-22) and II (2022). Although the paintings often depict busy and detached strangers, their small scales promote a sense of intimacy: “I don’t necessarily want to do paintings that demand attention,” she said. “I love the idea that people can actually live with my work.”
Tao Siqi’s suggestive small paintings evoke big feelings. Rendered in electric hues and meaty close-ups, the artist’s human and non-human subjects seem perpetually excited: tongues and fingertips probe the rounded edges of fruit, while the fusion of a tentacle and a navel provocatively tests the very limits of reality. “I imagine I’m looking at a treasure, portraying it very closely, giving it sensitivity and warmth, and making people feel intimate, introspective, and full between those inches,” Tao said of his process of creating. image creation.
Equally provocative are his depictions of cats, which are a frequent and disturbing presence in the Shanghai-based painter’s work: challenging a societal fixation on “cuteness”, Tao’s feline figures are as metamorphosed as human desire itself. same. They can be mutated in frightening ways, as in My cat (2021), or they could sink their teeth into what could be upholstered furniture or human flesh – in Bite (2021), close cropping makes both options entirely possible.
Somaya Critchlow, Grandfather Clock (Power Structures), 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Awash in flesh tones of umber and ocher, the figures in British painter Somaya Critchlow’s small canvases exude monumental physical confidence. His paintings rarely exceed a foot in height, but they radiate dim light and offer moving portraits of black power. Critchlow portrays his characters with firm, quiet expressions that recognize and disarm the viewer. Like Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley, Critchlow borrows visual tropes from the European portraiture canon, namely bewildered gazes and still life props.
Yet Critchlow’s figures are diminutive, even precious in their ways (e.g., holding a “little cup of tea”), as if designed to both expose and challenge the objectifying impulses of the viewer – and of the society in general. Critchlow upsets any equivalence between size and power in Grandfather Clock (Power Structures) (2019): The painting depicts a nymph standing next to a much larger and heavier old grandfather clock (suggesting patriarchal obsolescence), and the nymph steals the scene. As in Lisa Yuskavage’s small-scale portraits of idealized femininity, Critchlow’s laid-back pin-ups appear as if through seductive keyholes: We want what they have, while they retain their own secrets and power.
Will Gabaldón’s simple, striking, and naturalistic landscapes embrace the flatness of the image with a playful sincerity. “My landscapes are based on real places, but they’re made up…I don’t paint from life,” said the New Mexico-born painter. “They are more a memory of a place than an actual representation.” If not for portability, why stick to 12-by-12-inch canvases, as Gabaldón did for his latest solo exhibition at Various Small Fires?
Although he has produced works as small as five square inches, Gabaldón seems to resist “size matters” thinking: “If I can get the kind of stroke and paint treatment I want on a larger canvas “, he said, “it’s not that different. of a little job. He developed this independent view of scale in graduate school, where standing out for size meant missing the big picture (so to speak): “In hindsight,” Gabaldón said, “the school PhD was a bit of an arms race in size.… Our thesis exhibit had everyone making giant paintings.