Small is Big essay

By Tom Rhea

The physical terms of confronting a small painting are quite different from the approach to a large painting. The space of a large painting can envelop or contain a viewer: architectural in a way, like a room. The small painting exists at a permanent distance, its space accessed as if through a portal. There is a crystal ball aspect to a small painting: we peer into it. Like the twisting of a kaleidoscope, the images turn and hover on the edge of recognition, often without clear context. Skilled interpretation is required, and sometimes outright divination. 

As a familiar name for a fast, casual photo suggests, the two terms of the “snap-shot” both allude to a fraction of time, and to the explosive potential of the instantaneous. The German term Augenblick describes this instant by way of perception: literally, the blink of an eye. The repercussions of that static sliver of time caught on canvas, the laying of a raw physical fact directly onto the nerves, can be enormous. As Sigmund Freud once wrote so poignantly in his essay on Leonardo, “In accordance with the scale of his personal strength the way is open for him to try and alter a small portion of the destined course of the world – a world in which the small is still no less wonderful and significant than the great.”

Across a variety of styles, the artists included in Small is Big address an often overlooked category of painting. The selected artists produce works on a smaller scale that suggest novel ways of experiencing space and time, memory and invention, within the larger fiction of the painted world.

Every painter knows the rush of excitement as the early stages of a canvas begin to cohere. In the beginning, every work is a new first love, beyond the memory of any past disappointments or bad endings. Paintings done quickly or on site, like the landscapes of Eve Mansdorf, are suffused with the joy and mystery of new discoveries in nature. These are fresh and spontaneous insights that may not survive the challenge of extended reworking in the studio.

Because the time of its making might be condensed and the speed of its apprehension reduced, several painters here slow the viewer down by offering unfamiliar or unconventional scenes. As the one mostly abstract artist here, Ken Kewley throws down his broken forms like oracle bones and requires the viewer to read their meaning. Dancing back and forth across a shape-shifting, interpretative border, his forms accommodate multiple changes of scale and subject, from still life to figure to landscape.

The small painting often mimics the shock of a sight quickly seen, before cognitive habits break down the elements into the familiar. The viewer must bring a little more creativity and imagination to the image. The unusual still-life objects in Tim Kennedy’s work or the odd subjects in E M Saniga’s work prove how resilient perception can be in the face of novelty. With a few sure touches, both artists orient the viewer by exaggerating the essentials of each scene. Perhaps because the image is so easily absorbed in a glance, we accommodate and supplement vague passages that would be the blur of periphery in our own vision.

On a small scale, constituent brushstrokes become more prominent in providing the architecture of a piece. The geometric portraits of Catherine Kehoe balance an odd precision of squared strokes with a dashing generality of description. Back in the days when a courier brought a small portrait of a marriage candidate to the king, it would be hard to imagine one hard-hearted enough to resist the refined, sophisticated seduction of a Holbein princess. In a later era of popular photography, when the snapshot overtook this function, its salient features were the opposite: raw, unposed, and full of the awkwardness of the momentary. Kehoe, in her sepia toned renderings of family members from Poland, exploits a different aspect of the snapshot: the talismanic preservation of family or friends lost to divergent paths of time or destiny, the image lovingly preserved in almost an occult way. This sense of “remote-viewing” can be the most heartbreaking aspect of peering into the crystal ball.