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Large Scale: Selections from the Permanent Collection

April 1 - May 22, 2004

 

This exhibition is an opportunity for the Holter to display the largest pieces from its permanent collection. It is taking place in the High Gallery, the only space in the museum that can physically and aesthetically showcase the enormity of such beautiful large scale pieces. Included will be Indian Flats by Terry Karson and Sara Mast, (gift of Miriam Sample), Horse #26 by Theodore Waddell (gift of Betty Whiting, Arin Waddell and Shanna Shelby), Blizzardsticks by Michael Haykin, and The Treasure State by John Buck, (both gifts of Miriam Sample), among others. (right: installation photo, courtesy Holter Museum of Art)

 

 

About Scale

by Brandon Reintjes, Assistant Curator and Registrar, Holter Museum of Art

 

"If this one looks bottomless and vast, remember: to Omnipotence it is less than an atom." - Jelaluddin Rumi
 
"How resplendent the luminaries of knowledge that shine in an atom, and how vast the oceans of wisdom that surge within a drop!" - Baha'u'llah, (Gleanings From the Writings of Baha'u'llah, XC)

 

Any discussion of scale is immediately relevant because it affects every art lover and museum-goer on an intimate level, and that is of the self. It is often overlooked or ignored in discussions of art. When we look at art, we automatically refer back to our selves. We experience art in terms of our own personal physical space, immediately judging whether something is larger or smaller than us, making multiple decisions and connections about the relationships that we are experiencing. We bring assumptions of size to these experiences that are integral and based on our humanity, in a world that is scaled to accommodate the average human form. (right: John Buck, The Treasure State, 2002, jelutong wood, Collection of the Holter Museum of Art, Gift of Miriam Sample; Theodore Waddell, Horse #26, 1987, oil on canvas, Collection of the Holter Museum of Art, Gift of Betty Whiting, Arin Waddell, and Shanna Shelby)

Centrally, I believe scale is concerned with spirituality in the way it causes us to unconsciously self reflect. It creates a relationship of self evaluation in a very quiet and unassuming way so that most of the time we are not even aware of it. It places the viewer at the center of the relationship, where the viewer is evaluated in relation to the rest of the world. When confronted with a piece of art, the viewer absorbs the aesthetic lessons specifically, in relation to themselves. We become an axis mundi whereby we are the blank canvas and the art experience plays itself off of us. An axis mundi is a Buddhist concept of an axis of the world which provides a link between the human and celestial realms. It is partly because we relate scale back to our humanity that it goes beyond being only about sizeour "size" in terms of philosophy is limitless, but it is confined to a corporeal body. We project ourselves on the world not only physically, but intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally, as well as in a thousand other ways.

One wouldn't think that all of these celestial and spiritual issues would spring forth from an aesthetic concern that deals with size and relationships, but it is exactly this relational quality of scale that makes it so complex and elusive. When we view art, we bring all of these elements unconsciously into focus and they in turn affect our interpretation of what we see. In thinking about this question it is odd that most discussions of scale are confined to an unnecessarily rudimentary definition. This definition is "the relative size or extent of something". This limited understanding of scale doesn't account for the way artwork really affects us. It is untrue that a small piece of art has a small energy and a large work has more energy. This disparity becomes even more obvious when a small work is "scaled up" and suddenly acts differently, despite being an exact replica of itself. Painter Bridget Riley replies, when asked what scale means to her, "Maybe scale could be compared to a key in music. Scale is not simply size, although size is a factor of scale. Changing the size of an image always means recreating its scale. I have to readjust and rebalance the factors involved. It is an act of perceptual equation.There is no possibility of enlarging it automatically." (BR p80) I think she means that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole and this is the relationship which lies at the core of how we experience art. (right: Michael Haykin, Willows, Bernice, 1997, oil on canvas, Collection Holter Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist)

We relate an art experience back to our selves in so many ways. It is humorous that ceramist Jun Kaneko calls his large slabs "platters" when the sheer mass of clay exceeds the implied function for which they were created, being limited by human strength. Despite not being functional he still refers to the shape as a platter (despite the monstrous size!) which adds another layer of complexity in considering how we view and think about scale.

Jun Kaneko also speaks very specifically about "spiritual scale". He begins this discussion by elucidating the usual concepts of "size" and "relation", but ends by cutting right to the heart of the matter. "The concept of scale is based on relativity. If everything was the same size, there would be no concept of scale. It is because an object is not as big as another that we perceive it as small, and vice versa. If an object does not have any point of comparison, it no longer has a perceivable scale". I will interject that the point of comparison is most often our selves. "A good example of this is the Japanese tea bowl used in tea ceremonies. It is small in size, but it makes you feel like it's huge. When I see a good tea bowl, its fantastic visual power pulls me into it, almost unconsciously, and I find myself traveling around the bottom of it. The side of the tea bowl starts looking like a mountain ridge. I might feel sunshine and the shadows of clouds cast on the side of the mountain. I might even feel crisp cold air or hear the sound of a stream. But the moment when I become conscious of this, I always get thrown out of the spiritual experience. The point is to try to hold the same spiritual feeling in every object I make." (p 112) He also says, "A piece has to have a sense of completion no matter what scale it is. I like to have the idea of spiritual power in the scale so it will overcome conventional scale. If I am pulled into the piece, I will forget about scale and that is a really strong spiritual kind of powerCeramic activity is like volcanic activity in nature; compared to that, my pieces are dust". (right: Terry Karson and Sara Mast, Indian Flats, 1999, mixed media collaboration, Collection of the Holter Museum of Art, Gift of Miriam Sample; John Buck, The Treasure State, 2002, jelutong wood, Collection of the Holter Museum of Art, Gift of Miriam Sample)

Scale also becomes about proximity in a round about way. Another way of saying this would be to express that a particular work of art has an interior scale. Interior scale encompasses the events that happen within a particular work in relation to the exterior dimension. Therefore, it deals primarily with compositional elements, rather than the physical size of the piece. This translates as tension within the confines of the form or canvas. In smaller scale artworks, objects, whether painted or physical, are much closer to each other in terms of measurable distance. When the same artwork is made larger, the distance become bigger and therefore the interaction between these objects is different. Suddenly, the energy is different. Sometimes small, tight and precious is under emphasized, though arguably building smaller forms is just as difficult as building large ones, because the spatial relationships are more intimate. A quote by Bridget Riley describes the difference of energy between intimate spatial relationships and greater ones. Bear in mind that she is speaking in terms of a specific painting, though the lesson can be universally applied, "When (it was)on a small scale, it was a slow painting and when it became larger it became slower still. When its character was revealed in this slowness I realized that by increasing the scale a more positive statement of slowness would be made". (p56) This understanding is dependant upon a very modern interpretation of art that assumes the parts of the artwork are comprised of "sole and essential agents in a series of relationships with one another". Though I prescribe to this definition myself, it occasionally overlooks the associations people bring to the art experience. We can look at a picture of a horse and forget that it isn't a real horse, or isn't as large as a horse "should be", but we when we walk away or go home, we still remember a horse.

Scale is important because the size of the artwork bears directly on how we interpret it (though it can still be influenced, or polluted if you will, by our memory of the 'horse'). A small piece elicits feelings of intimacy very differently than how a larger work can let us experience intimacy. In different context the same object may be viewed as large or small or exactly the same size as everything else. As humans, we tend to react to situations and experiences in two ways. If they are smaller than us, the experience elicits feelings of nurturing -a sense of control or protection. When they are larger, these experiences become a point of awe or overwhelming in themselves.

An example of the power of scale shift comes in remembering that during the abstract expressionist experiment with ideas concerning the Monumental and the Heroic, shift in scale was in part responsible for delivering the entire institution of painting from the tradition of the easel. The process was paralleled in ceramics as well, as functionality fell away because forms became larger and larger. This was arguably a very powerful move that caused us to re-examine hundreds of years of looking at Western art making in one particular way. The residual effect from abstract expressionism is that we have a cultural bias toward questions of scale, assuming that bigger is better. Another noteworthy comment on the power of scale shift concerns the work of Richard Notkin or John Buck. In their three dimensional work, both sculptors combine multiple views of scale together in one piece in a way that is not dependant upon any one prevailing standard. The mushroom cloud from an atomic blast can be placed atop of a six sided die that is relationally three times larger than the cloud, or an oil rig spouting cookie cutter houses is contrasted with a bust of Charlie Russell that towers over the whole rig. Richard Notkin, drawing from his Jewish background describes this as ongepatschke scale, meaning anything goes, but with incompetent or piece meal connotations.

Because questions of scale can elicit such responses, they become a way of interpreting the world around us. One experience most people can relate to that offers an immediate example of scale shift concerns the prevalence of fine arts slides or thumbnail pictures in text books that are supposed to represent a specific work of art. Here we have something distorted from the original intention of the artist, who has very carefully considered the effect of scale on a person, but are left with a micro-indicator of the real experience. Anyone who has come across an artwork in the context of a museum or gallery are usually surprised by the "real" size of the art. In "A Balthus Notebook" by Guy Davenport he describes this precisely. "The Passage du Commerce Saint-Andre, Balthus's masterwork, has the spaciousness and presence of a Renaissance wall painting {it is eleven feet long, ten feet high} and invites and defies a reading of its meaning as vigorously as Pierro della Francesca's Flagellation. Reproductions of it trick one into believing that it is an intimist canvas, fairly small. I was unprepared for its size when I saw it first at the Centre Pompidou in an afternoon of surprises". I believe we all carry around inside of us a defacto setting for size that we automatically revert to when we are asked to assume the dimensions of an object. Mine changes slightly, but always seems to be about the size of my upper torso, like a portrait.

There is the commonly held belief that each object has one "right" scale depending on the experience the artist feels compelled to convey. Jun Kaneko says, "Whether I am making a large or small piece, in the end I hope it will make sense to have that particular scale and form together and that it will give off enough visual energy to shake the air around it. I believe each form has one right scale. Sometimes I feel it worked, sometimes I missed it". (p112) This also comes up in an interview of Bridget Riley, though you might feel as if the interviewer unnecessarily leads her. Observe that she quickly corrects him when he gets off track:

 

How often have you done a painting in one scale and found that it was wrong and that you had to begin again?

Very Seldom.

When you're wrong, do you do the discarded painting again on a different scale? Or do you tend to be bored with the idea once you've got the scale wrong the first time?

No, I do it again.

But you are saying that before you've done a drawing you've got very little idea whether the final thing is going to be big or small?

Yes, that's true.

But you nowadays habitually paint larger than before. Would you like to re-do your old paintings larger?

No, they are right as they are.

Meaning that the ideas in your early paintings were ideas for paintings on a smaller scale, necessarily?

Necessarily.

And that now your ideas are for paintings on a larger scale?

Yes.

Does the fact that you are working on a larger scale give a feedback to the ideas themselves, so that these are now mostly ideas for larger paintings, or is it that, among the ideas which you make drawings of, you then carry through those which demand a larger scale and tend not to bother with those which would be done on a smaller scale?

No, it's the first one. Paintings breed. You work in certain groups. I remember before my first American show I started to work on a group of things which all became small paintings. There was nothing I could do to change the scale. The ideas demanded small canvases. (BR p72-73)

 

In conclusion, scale is only a part of the whole art experience, but a necessarily important one that accounts for an intimate part of the equation. It is one element that connects us to the human and spiritual, helping us to absorb the aesthetic lessons in relation to ourselves, and this brings us much closer to those things we actually value in art.

 

 

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