What Size Do You Like Your Art?
Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles
Through September 11th
Written by Lorraine Heitzman
Just as there is something delightful about miniatures, so is there a particular delight in the inverse phenomena of things transformed beyond their usual size. When Alice shrinks and grows in Alice in Wonderland, it is amusing to see the world changed in such a simple and fundamental way. Claes Oldenburg understood the power of this ploy when he made his clothespin and other mundane objects more than three stories tall, and similarly Jeff Koons entertains us with giant inflated balloon sculptures. Charles Ray manipulates scale to comment on the relationships between his subjects, and also between his sculptures and the audience via their relative, exaggerated sizes. In the hands of different artists, size can be distorted for all sorts of reasons.
We are generally aware that when gender or race are reversed in a movie or play, assumptions and patterns are about to be challenged. Likewise, an unfamiliar scale in art may be disorienting and force us to consider the familiar anew. Anything made unusually large may overwhelm our senses, a gimmick employed by kings, robber barons, architects and artists, alike. At Albert Oehlen’s show presented by Gagosian and installed at the Marciano Art Foundation, the eight super-sized canvases are not so much overwhelming as they are amusing. How much more is gained from scaling up is questionable; they may not be awe-inducing, but they are undeniably fun.
Tramonto Spaventoso occupies an enormous octagonally reconfigured gallery within the MAF that references the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. After borrowing the proportions and number of Rothko’s canvases, Oehlen then lifts imagery from a painting by an obscure, mid-century artist, John Graham, entitled Tramonto Spaventoso (Terrifying Sunset). It is not necessary to know about these recurring influences to savor the show, in fact, they contradict the initial impression that these are random sketchbook doodles blown up for impact. It is more likely to assume that the artist selected the “scale to fit page” option to arrive at these large paintings rather than imagine that the size was predicated on Rothko’s installation. Regardless of the backstory, as with art exhibits in general, the knowledge adds little value to the experience. What does define the experience is the question of why these casual drawings were made so big in the first place.
Creating big art isn’t always better, but Oehlen does have a talent for making his work look effortless. It shows up in the looseness of his gestures and application of materials. Each canvas is filled with imagery that seem to reflect a stream-of-consciousness. The drawn elements have the fresh look of those made playfully with pencil or charcoal sticks, though he surely used different tools more appropriate for tasks of this size. Even the areas of color washes and collage refer to methods used in smaller formats but work well here, seamlessly enlarged. One repeating image is a Eustace Tilley-type figure that John Graham used in his original Tramonto Spaventoso. With a handlebar mustache and monocle, the character is seen mutated in various guises: with a veil of chain mail or defined by patterned fabric collaged onto the canvas. Sometimes they take on the look of a Picasso sketch, or perhaps a surrealistic self-portrait by Salvador Dali. Overall, there is a comic effect, a cartoon-like lightheartedness to the show. That feeling is only enhanced by the installation that suggests a hall of mirrors. The only nagging thought remains: Why so big? If you are happy to be entertained, this show obliges. If you are looking for a more intimate connection, perhaps this isn’t the show for you.
Marciano Art Foundation
4357 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, ca 90010
Extended through September 11, 2021