Looking at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Foster Prize exhibit showcasing local artists last fall, I kept wondering why the Boston-made art often looked small in the ICA. For example, I’d seen Matthew Rich’s abstract paintings and paper cutouts in other shows and they always felt good sized, even big. But at the ICA they seemed small, which made the art’s ambition and ideas feel small.
A problem is that galleries for post World War II art in the major new structures at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Museum of Fine Arts are built to the scale of the international art Circuit, which is supersized. Like similar contemporary art halls across the country, they’re designed for mural-sized paintings and monumental sculptures. Even Abstract Expressionist canvases can seem dwarfed by the largeness of the top floor of the MFA’s new Art of the Americas Wing.
But in Boston—and other non-art-world-capitals—which artists can afford to make giant paintings and sculptures? And if you make them, who can afford to ship and store them? To keep up a giant output often demands help from assistants. With Boston’s meager art economics, who can afford to hire help? Our economics mean that local artists—especially emerging artists—tend to make smaller works, which get dwarfed by our new architecture.
Many local curators seem unaware of this size problem. There is a fix. At Brown University’s Bell Gallery in Providence, for exhibits of smaller works, the curators often paint the top of the gallery walls a dark color to effect an optical illusion that makes the gallery feel smaller. And it flatters small and mid-sized works.
The dilemmas of size and shipping aren’t just a local issue. Nigeria-based sculptor El Anatsui, whose giant shimmering bottle cap curtains are featured in his splendid retrospective on view at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum, said in an interview for his 2006 exhibit at David Krut Projects in New York: “I think the nomadic aesthetic developed as a result of the need to address a certain problem: to create works that are packing, storage and transportation efficient or friendly. It applies to work that I have done but more especially to what I’m doing now [the bottle cap curtains], which always comes in considerable sizes but can contract and like a nomad, I can move around.” Would these amazing metal curtains, which El Anatsui produces with help from as many as 20 assistants, have become so celebrated internationally if they were less easily shipped?
The Yokelist Papers:
Yokelist Manifesto Number 1: Boston lacks alternative spaces?
Yokelism at the 2008 Boston Art Awards.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 2: Montreal case study.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 3: Hire locally.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 4: We need coverage of our living artists.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 5: We need local retrospectives.
Yokelism update: Coverage of our living artists: Sebastian Smee responds.
Yokelism update: Dangers of Provincialism.
Yokelism update: Re: Dangers of Provincialism.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 6: Could the CIA help?
Yokelism at the 2009 New England Art Awards.
Re: “Yokelism with your wallet out.”
Globe: The revolution begins with Harvard – a Yokelist response.
Yokelist questions Globe diss of Boston.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 7: Can you love Boston art and still love the Foster Prize?
Yokelist Manifesto 8: We need local art history.
Yokelism and the Maud Morgan Prize.