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Size matters - in art, that is.

Karen Walker in front of her installation in progress at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn
Karen Walker in front of her installation in progress at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn
Photograph: Alex Strada

Today’s column comes at you a little differently. Journalism requires a lead sentence to set up a story. Committing the journalism no-no, I’m burying the lead. You’ll find it after the story.

When I was living in New York, my college-prof husband and I had a lot of faculty parties for his department (foreign languages) colleagues. It was part of the job and as a faculty wife, I was expected to host such soirees. I never minded. A big plus for me was that the profs conversed in their foreign tongues and I wasn’t expected to make conversation – a chore for me in any language. As a practicing painter I was left to observe and sketch at will.

One of the things I noticed about this faculty was that in their constant conversation they didn’t look up, which meant they didn’t notice my work on the walls, unless you count one of the partygoers entering my studio and upon spotting a nude dropping his pants and masturbating. (You take praise where you can get it. And he was a French prof, after all).

After several of these parties, my paintings grew in size and big enough to cover entire walls. It was clear why. Spurring the enlargements was the party-goers’ obliviousness to the walls. Painting big enough to envelope whole rooms would also put the guests smack dab in the paintings. Along with the size-change came images so out of scale that they bled off the picture plane.

Still no one looked up at these gatherings, not even once. Making gigantic paintings was a mistake for another reason, too. Painting, like any art, is the act of ordering the chaos that is in us, that is the world. And when the over-sized images moved off their space into the chaos, order moved off, too.

And here comes the lead I buried. Over-sized art – a growing trend these days, particularly in public art – can't be art. I’m thinking of Andy Scott’s near-100-foot sculpture (more than six times the height of Michelangelo’s larger-than-life “David”) of a Clydesdale horse head in Glasgow, Scotland and Kara Walker’s mountain-high mammy-as-sphinx (twice the height of “David”) at Brooklyn’s legendary Domino Sugar Factory.

The problem with over-sized sculptures is that they’re too big to take in. It’s like contemplating a tall building from ground level. You can’t. All you get is a distorted view. Order is gone and all you get is the chaos.

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