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Small Paintings Large Galleries

approximately 30 cm high 

Notes on this work

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I've always liked the kind of art book that is crowded with tiny colour reproductions of famous masterpieces, all reduced (whatever their original scale) to the size of a matchbox top. Looking through the Menthuen Dictionary of Modern Painting I come across, say, La Grande Jatte and can now enjoy its sedate grandeur even though it is now only two and a quarter inches high. Entering a room of the National Gallery I can be overwhelmed by the power of a painting whose optical presence I can block out with the tip of my little finger. Scale is a mystery, and size for the artist is a problem; there are many large puny pictures and many small pictures of great pith and moment.

This dilemma applies equally to the act of painting itself. When working on a large picture the artist will often keep stepping back to judge it as something more compactly visible. The pictures in this exhibition occupied my whole focussed field of vision while I was making them, and once I was immersed in the business of painting I seemed to be making bold large marks and major changes with a ruthlessness (albeit miniaturised) appropriate to gestural painting on six foot canvases. An analogous situation in fact occurs when working on a still life, where one's concentration moves among a group of apples on a table-top as if one were a tiny person exploring a landscape strewn with immense boulders.

I found myself painting pictures of no more than a few inches square for the four years up to 1982, since work on another project (translating and illustrating Dante) took much painting time away. To paint small was the ideal solution in that the time factor is reduced when working on this scale, for it takes only a second to mix a colour that might obliterate the whole working surface. 

When I'd finished the paintings, however, they did no continue to remind me of how large a space they had occupied of my working consciousness: they became small pictures (or more doubtfully, studies from which  I could make larger works). Only after some while did it occur to me that I could make them bigger by making the context in which they were to be viewed smaller. Perhaps in a National Gallery of Lilliput, these would be the bold vigorous paintings I had thought I had made. Thus with the aid of my assistant Andy Gizauskas (whose patience with failed prototypes and whose sensitivity to the implications of the task have been invaluable) I set about devising models that would be extracts and abstracts of gallery spaces.

In one sense the idea of this group of works had been paradoxically prefigured in another where I had taken the small and fuzzy images from an early postcard (of the Mappin Art Gallery) and had made conjectured versions of what seemed to be there. These went to make up a life-size museum wall with full size pictures, all executed from the elusive hints provided by the source. Were these present pictures themselves to to be reproduced it might be possible (their having become thus distanced and scaleless) to paint from them the large pictures which I think they imply…-someone with a taste for closed-circuit folly might be tempted to do it… 

In Midnight's Children Salman Rushdie instances, 'A painter whose paintings had grown larger and larger as he tried to get the whole of life into his art, "Look at me," he said before he killed himself, "I wanted to be a miniaturist and I've got elephantiasis instead!'" This exhibition could illustrate the converse possibility; a painter of large pictures afflicted (or even coping with) minaturiasis.

Works and Texts 1992