Does Size Matter?

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Julian Schnabel in front of one of his paintings, a prime example of why bigger is not always better.
Julian Schnabel in front of one of his paintings, a prime example of why bigger is not always better.

Dear BURNAWAY,
I’m a painter and I work relatively small, no larger than a 24×36 canvas. A curator visited my studio last week and advised me to paint bigger. In fact, he said that there was no way I could be successful if I kept painting this small. It has rattled me all week, mostly because I like painting on a small, intimate scale. I make very detailed work, so it would take me ages to do a huge canvas. I’m wondering what you think about this, Sara. Was he right?
Sincerely,
Mr. Small

Perennial Properties

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Willard Wigan, Buzz, micro sculpture in the eye of a needle.

Dear Mr. Small,
Wow, that’s one highly absolute suggestion that curator made. I can see why you’re rattled; I would be too. If someone said to me, “Sara, you’re never going to be a good writer unless you write novel-length prose,” I’d feel pretty weird about that. I’d think But I like writing columns and articles and short stories!
You’re probably feeling uneasy because you know what you are comfortable with and what you’re best at, and this guy is telling you to do something different from that.
First, I should point one thing out: some of the most famous paintings of all time are small, as in 36 inches or less. Mona Lisa is 30 by 21 inches, Starry Night is 29 by 36 inches, and Girl with a Pearl Earring is 17½ by 15 inches. In contemporary art, “bigger is better” seems to be the going strategy, but I have a hunch that has more to do with commercial gallery agendas than the actual quality and staying-power of the art. By that I mean, the bigger a work is the more a gallery can charge for it. In an interview, Andy Warhol once said that a reason he added a blank second canvas to make diptychs like Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times and Red Disaster was simply because it made the work bigger, thus fetching a higher sticker price. So, there’s that.
Moving on, let’s talk about the real issue here: advice. While taking advice from people who are more knowledgeable than you can be a good thing, sometimes you just have to plug your ears and do what you do, sugarbear. And this is coming from a person who writes an advice column!
Since I started writing this column, I’ve been forced to think a lot about the nature of advice in general. Serendipitously, in the pages of Shaun Usher’s fantastic anthology Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, I stumbled upon a letter written by a 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompson to his friend Hume Logan in 1958. Logan had asked Thompson how to find his purpose in life. Here’s how Thompson began his response:

“To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.”

With that disclaimer, Thompson then goes on to give his friend some really beautiful, pretty lengthy advice.

Charles Ray, Puzzle Bottle, 1995; glass, painted wood, and cork, 13½ by 3¾ by 3¾ inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Charles Ray, Puzzle Bottle, 1995; glass, painted wood, and cork, 13½ by 3¾ by 3¾ inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

 
I know that might seem like a self-defeating passage for me to quote in this column, but honestly, Thompson was right. No person can give another person the ultimate right answer, because there is no ultimate right answer.
Yet while I agree with Thompson, I also know that I couldn’t have gotten through most of my life without the guidance, professional tips, and encouragement from my mentors, be they friends, professors, writers whom I loved, or my mother. Which is why I still think offering one’s thoughts, opinions, and knowledge is a worthwhile and necessary pursuit.
So, all that is to say: you get to pick and choose the advice you want to take. Be wise about that choice. Listen to what others have to say. But if something doesn’t ring true for you, just leave it on the ground and walk away.
That curator offered you something he’s found through his experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer for you. If you feel your paintings only make sense as smaller works, then follow that intuition.
If his suggestion rattled you because it made you feel like you should try something new, then maybe he’s on to something. Don’t back away from a challenge to your comfort zone, if that’s what this is. You need to keep challenging yourself throughout your career, trying new things, and pushing your creative boundaries. But in doing that, you don’t have to compromise your vision. In this case, only you know what’s right for you and your art. This is your story, sweet peach, write it however you want.

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is co-founder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.