A Small Wonder

KMA's Size Matters: XS shows that bigger isn't always better

In an age of sprawling McMansions and boxy SUVs, is there really a need for smaller, intimate works of art? It would seem the answer is a definitive no, as most contemporary artists require an expansive scale to frame their nuanced obsessions.

A new exhibition at the Knoxville Museum of Art challenges this notion. Size Matters: XS collects 42 works by 24 contemporary international painters currently working in small-scale painting. Most of these works are merely the size of a small book, demanding close inspection.

It's no surprise that realist painters are prominent in the show, and mostly they recount and re-imagine various aspects of daily modern life with much aplomb. Ridley Howard's works depict attractive subjects in their upper-class homes, based on idyllic memories from his adolescence spent in suburban Atlanta. In "Rania," a woman experiences an emotional crisis in bed while her husband sleeps beside her, and in another untitled work a detached female subject blankly air-kisses an acquaintance.

Much like Howard, Amy Bennett captures the suffocating effect of life in the suburbs, but with a more detailed eye. Bennett's tiny paintings are centered around a scale-model neighborhood with fictional residents who resemble the artist's own neighbors from her childhood in Maine. As in any neighborhood, there's plenty of drama, illustrated by a series of disturbing voyeuristic scenes. "Against the Wall" shows a couple engaged in a domestic dispute; "Doubling Over" reveals an aging woman momentarily crippled from pain. Here, the small scale works most effectively; the dainty size counterpoints the disturbing vignettes revealed.

British artists Ross Chisholm and Matthew Weir both appropriate images from older artwork while adding new layers of meaning and complexity to their portraiture. In "Couple & Dog," Chisholm reconfigures a standard issue 18th-century society painting into a piece tinged by Surrealism—a man's head in the portrait of a couple is replaced by an abstract figure, erasing the air of romantic nostalgia.

The tropical background and rich colors in Weir's "The Harlot's Curse" are almost enough to distract the viewer from the artist's scathing examination of racial and sexual stereotypes. The painting's central figure is a woman of African ancestry clad in traditional dress amid a murky green landscape. But Weir's subject is painted directly from a figurine found in a British museum collection, and he visibly renders the porcelain's glaze across her body, reducing her sublime beauty to a superficial sheen. Both of these artists display succinct mastery of their medium and extend the parameters of the exhibit beyond the more conventional works of realism.

International standouts include Belgian artist Michael Borremans, whose dramatic figure paintings refer to Old Masters such as Diego Velasquez. Borremans' two works feature inexpressive young men amid a gloomy background, possibly a statement of political disinterest. In "Heat," Romanian artist Serban Savu effectively uses a distant vantage point similar to video surveillance footage to depict two men at leisure, illuminating the reality of life in a dictatorship. Iranian artist Tala Madani addresses Middle Eastern society through overtly sexual and political themes, which are juxtaposed with her naive cartoon-like painting style. In "Brown Cake," she uses the birthday cake as a metaphor for a suicide bomb, just one blow away from destruction. Also noteworthy is Spain's Guillermo Caivano. His dense oil works on "Hessian" were grounded by earthy sepia tones.

I wasn't crazy about the dizzying psychedelic feel of New York artist Aaron Johnson's work. His brazen style, reminiscent of Surrealism and Indian miniatures, seemed too heavy a contrast to the overtly stark feel of the show. Ditto for Texan Trenton Doyle Hancock's elaborate cartoon-style works, whose freakish compositions might have fared better with a larger format.

As for small works becoming obsolete—I don't think so. If anything, Size Matters: XS shows how adept contemporary artists have become at using limitations such as scale to their advantage. Almost all of these artists work more frequently with larger canvases, though, so don't get too used to these mini-masterpieces. (The second part of this exhibit, Size Matters: XXL, is currently on view at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in New York.) m