Bringing Art Making Into Your Life
Art can be any size. It can be gentle or obnoxious, meaningful or silly. You don’t have to cut up a shark or put one in a tank of formaldehyde Damien Hirst style to make good art. Not everyone gets the opportunity to create art on a massive scale and not everyone wants to. We can’t all cast a whole house in concrete like Rachel Whiteread, or wrap some cliffs in fabric al la Christo. These are all incredible bits of art but you get the feeling that some famous artists seem to need to work on a bigger and bigger scale as they become more famous; they need to up the ante to keep building their reputation.
Of course I’m not saying that’s the main reason these artists make work on a superhuman scale, but for some artists the scale and the drama is a big part of what they do. An artist like Jeff Koons even uses artisans and tradespeople to make his work because the work is beyond the scope of his physical abilities.
Above: Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog, 1994. [I might as well confess here that this is one of my all time favorite artworks. I know! Shameful in a blog about non-extravagant art.]
Art doesn’t have to outrageous to be good. It doesn’t have to be big to be important. Small art can be outrageous too. Small scale art can have a big impact visually and emotionally.
I don’t mean only physically small, but small in theme too. Maybe simple is a better word, or humble or personal. Succinct? Whatever the word I am looking for it’s the opposite of a an extravaganza.
Thinking about a book I read recently: The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak. It has big stories going on:Nazi Germany during the second world war, smaller but meaningful stories: non Nazi Germans trying to help Jewish people and the more personal again story of a girl who likes to steal books. From the moment you start reading you are whirling towards something. Its a bit stressful as it builds towards one of the variety of endings we know are possible in the context of the war. None of the themes in this book is any less important to the great book that it is. The smaller story of the girl has a huge and vital impact on the book.
A question to ask yourself: what is the measure of a good piece of art for you? For me it’s a work that takes a while to understand, work that reveals more of itself, the more you look at it. Some of my all time favorite artworks are quite humble, with a quietness that draws me back again and again.
One of my all time heroes of the contemplative work is Mark Rothko. These works consisting primarily of fields of colour are on largish canvases. But they aren’t on a large canvas for no reason. If you stand right up near them you can fill your whole mind with the colors. The first time I saw a Rothko painting in real life I was transfixed. Had trouble going to look at any of the other works.
Above: No. 12 (Black on Dark Sienna on Purple), 1960, by Mark Rothko.
Above: No. 16, 1960, by Mark Rothko. Some work is so simple [or deceptively simple] that it captures a special quality and seems to embody more mystery and depth than the most extravagant work.
Mystery can be one of the most important ingredients in an artwork . It keeps you wondering about the work and discovering new things.
Or the juxtaposition of quietness and energy. Energy can be brought to a work in a variety of ways. In an episode of Painting Australia, we see artist John Wolesley drawing a scene of the burnt Australian bush. At one point Wolesley walks through the bush letting the burnt ends of branches and sticks scratch and draw randomly at his drawing. He says he does it because [paraphrasing] ‘it’s hard to bring that much energy if he drew it himself’.
Cressida Campbell’s woodcuts of scenes in and around her home, are just so stunning, skillful and satisfying. Their jewel like qualities out way the potential suburban-ness of their theme. Her room scenes are especially magical. There is no people in them but you always feel like someone just left the room.
Above: A slice of life, woodblock by Cressida Campbell.
Above: Persimmons and Silk, woodblock by Cressida Campbell. Campbell Sells only one print from each woodblock and the block itself.
Artworks that use homely themes can need to bring out something that appeals to all of us, some universal quality, other wise it is easy to fall into a type of art making I like to call the dreaded snapshot. Where you feel like you are looking at work which is about as interesting to you as looking at snapshots of someone else’s family members that you don’t even know. I talk more about this in the Choosing and expanding section of the Making Art website.
One place big work seems to have a real advantage is at a big gallery opening. At a big show the smaller and quieter works can get lost, being both physically hard to look at, and emotionally hard to access with all the racket going on. For these gentler pieces you might need to spend a bit of time with them on their own. And in articles and magazines or on screens, a huge drama of a piece makes great copy. But this doesn’t mean that they are better artworks. And so often you get the sense that something has been made massive just for the hell of it. A really banal photo printed 1 1/2 metres square for no reason. It’s not working with the particular artwork at all. Maybe it would have been more engaging if it was smaller and you had to peer at it a little to see what it’s about.
This makes me think of Sally Mann’s photos, printed at a moderate size, maybe 11×16 inches [I can’t remember what size they are , it was a long time ago that I saw them, sorry], they draw you in. You step right up to them and get involved with the content. You don’t need them to be enormous to think they are beautiful.
Above: One of Sally Mann’s Family Pictures series, 1984-1991.
For me a lot of ancient art holds a quiet beauty and mystery, that sees me happily contemplating it over and over. I guess I also like the idea that thousands of people have also had their special moments with a work.
But how does this all relate to your own art making practice? Well of course if you do want to work on an extravagant scale you should. Especially if its going to work with, enhance your artwork. Making a piece of art that is very over scale or under scale, can add a layer of meaning to a work. It can make someone look at the content anew, or see it differently. But don’t just do it for no reason. Sculptor Ron Mueck, famous for his over scale works of people, also creates works at a smaller scale when it suits the work.
Above: Sculpture 7, by Ron Mueck. With this work its smaller scale makes you feel like you are sharing an intimate moment.
Every now and then I make something that I think, that would be sensational if it was really massive. Apart from wanting to make something huge for the reason of using an unusual scale, there are other reasons for making big or extravagant art. Mans[or woman’s] mastery over their environment, to impress people, to dominate. To reveal the beauty of something that is usually hard to see. Or simply because of the environment you know that artwork will eventually be placed in, [a huge garden or park].
As usual I am saying don’t twist yourself out of shape trying to make what you think you should make. It’s about listening to yourself and making art that answers the questions you are asking.