Wednesday, June 25, 2014

They might be giants

In 1958 when Colin McCahon came home from his first and only visit to the United States, he brought back a expanded sense of scale. Having finally seen firsthand how massive some paintings could be (paintings you could walk past as he described them) he stepped up and made his Northland panels, a sort-of-big painting cobbled together from eight lengths of unstretched canvas. 

Making large scale work in a small country is hard. So difficult in fact that some of the biggest paintings ever made in the country had to be commissioned and sponsored by the Auckland Art Gallery via its Ten Big Paintings exhibition back in 1971. Although there have been some ingenious efforts to make big work like McCahon’s strips, Killeen’s mega cut outs and Robinson working with cheap high volume material like polystyrene, scale in NZ art is more often brought out for special occasions than acting as a regular part of an artist's development.

Last month we saw some immense Julian Schnabel paintings in New York and wondered if that sort of painting were even possible in New Zealand. There’s just not the studio space or the hanging space or the marketing space. If there's nowhere to exhibit large works the ambition to make them has got to be affected. What makes this inhibition a more interesting question is the wave of gigantism that has so engaged the international art world. Stirling Ruby’s land-of-the-giant 'ash trays', the immense installations in the Tate turbine hall, Pai White’s monster tapestries, all helping to fill the endless public and commercial space available for art today. If artists from NZ want to participate on that bigger (in all senses) world, the challenge of scale is increasingly problematic.

Image: Pae White tapestry (detail)