Let’s get small

Art Life , Op-ed Feb 17, 2011 No Comments

Carrie Miller noticed everything was getting smaller – but in a good way…

Maybe it’s because I was less jaded, but everything about art when I first became acquainted with it in the 1980s seemed a lot bigger. There weren’t theories, there was Theory. And there weren’t just lots of big paintings and performances around, there was Painting and Performance.

When you talked about art you referenced some pretty big ideas by some pretty big name philosophers. Art was trading in big concepts like Identity and The Body. And these conversations took place at big parties in the big warehouses of emerging artists.

In the 1980s, this would have been much bigger…

Then I remember the moment when things began to shift. It’s a moment that’s now called Grunge Art but for me it was the moment when things got smaller. This type of art was being made by young artists who could no longer afford big studios because the city had changed. Sydney and Melbourne were becoming cosmopolitan cities; property prices were on the move and buildings were being converted into “New York” style lofts. This new generation of artists made work in spare bedrooms with cheap, ordinary materials. They often drew on their specific experiences of domestic, suburban life. While just as informed intellectually by theory, their work explored the personal, the everyday, the subjective.

Adam Cullen spray painted the words “My dad had sex with my mum” on some paper and the the big ideas of Psychoanalytic Theory elevated in the ’80s were reduced to a banal, little fact.

Somewhere along the way, things got big again. There was big money that big collectors paid for big paintings and big objects. The denouement of this was when one of Del Kathryn Barton‘s impressive pictures which was supposedly bought for around $10,000 was resold at auction for close to $100,000, apparently in a relatively short period.

This moment hasn’t passed, but in the last few years I’ve felt a sense of things becoming smaller again and it feels good. The most obvious and literal example is that there’s a growing movement of painters working on a small scale. And what these painters seem to have in common is an interest in technique – many are in fact revisiting the styles of the past and not in an ironic way.

There is a humility to these works both in their scale but also in their genuine desire to look back at what has come before rather than an obsession with what’s the next big thing.

I think this trend towards modesty in art is wedded to a broader cultural shift. We are paying for living large; as a result, consumption on a large scale has become an obscenity. Intellectuals are less concerned with what knowledge is on a big, abstract level – we need to know what it can do in quite specific, concrete ways.

What is really interesting about this move away from the monumental is how responsive the market has been to it. Just as you got your coke by the gram, you bought your artwork by the metre in the ’80s. And that’s remained pretty standard practice by commercial galleries. The work of Sam Leach, a leader of this generation of small-scale painters, has managed to break with this rule. Priced at not more than a couple of thousand dollars a few years ago, if you could get your hands on one now it would set you back more than ten. It won’t be surprising to see Leach’s work go ballistic on the secondary market in the future. Michael Zavros‘ miniatures are the other good example.

I reckon this is a good thing for art in general. Artists don’t have to be able to afford big spaces to work in; collectors don’t have to live in big apartments with trophy walls to buy a significant work. And people can now buy a small work in an artist’s run space with more confidence of its investment potential.

This sense of proportion has also started to catch on with theorising about art. It’s possible to go for an entire week now without someone in the art world misrepresenting Deleuze. And like a bad coke habit, that’s something definitely best left in the 80s.

Carrie Miller

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