Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Big Reductions At The MCA’s Karen Kilimnik Exhibit

A couple of Tuesday’s back I drove north of the river and visited the Museum of Contemporary Art to see the Karen Kilimnik exhibit.

It was interesting to see in real life the drawings and paintings I was used to seeing in magazines and on the web. However, my two main memories of my visit to the MCA aren’t about the content of Kilimnik’s work at all.

First of all, in the MCA’s gift shop I saw that they sell designer toys. Although I’d posted about that cool trend, this was the first time I’d seen designer toys in real life. They were pretty cool and I’ll be posting more about them in the future. It’s my favorite trend. Designer toys combine art, industry and low-cost accessibility.

Second, what struck me most about Karen Kilimnik’s work was the scale at which she created things and the big reduction in size necessary to reproduce her work for the media. Kilimnik’s pieces are typically two or three feet across. Magazines and the web typically reduce such images to an inch or two across. That is, the media typically reduces images by 70% or 80% or more.

Working at a large scale and then reducing the finished piece for reproduction is very common. I’m focusing on Kilimnik just because she’s an artist I’m interested in now.

When large, hand-made images are dramatically reduced in size, a lot of rough edges get smoothed out. The whole look of a piece can change. The Gestalt—the overall totality of the image’s effects which are always greater than the sum of its individual characteristics—can change.

You see this a lot in good and bad art instruction books. Good art instruction books almost always reproduce images at their real size, and almost always note that images are reproduced actual size. Bad art instruction books reproduce images and technique demonstrations at 50% or more because they look better. But the reduced result is always something that appears oddly different than the life-sized work a student creates.

I decided to do some work myself at a slightly larger scale than I normally work.

A few days ago I mentioned I wanted to experiment with water soluble oils on plain paper. Recently I did an underdrawing in graphite for an oil painting. (Yes, I know pencils aren’t recommended for drawing under oils because the graphite can ‘migrate’ up through the paint layers, but working with oil on paper isn’t recommended, either. Besides, I’ve read that if you smooth the surface of a pencil drawing to remove excess graphite the image will stay on the paper.)

I created an underdrawing based on a fashion photo of socialite Amy Greenspon. I made sure to use the full page, even though I’m more comfortable working at a smaller scale.

Now, an interesting thing about underdrawings is that they don’t have to have any particular style or character. They just have to map out the composition. It is paint and its application that will create style and character. Underdrawings are utilitarian images and you can be very relaxed sketching them.

But even an underdrawing takes on a bit of interest when dramatically reduced in size.

Here’s my underdrawing of Amy Greenspon reduced to about 80% of its normal size. If you click on the image you can see it life-sized. At its full size, you can see the utilitarian nature of the image, the random smears and random erasure marks. Yet reduced in size there is a kind of unity-of-effect that looks like a pleasant, finished piece.

I suspect there’s something very revealing here about the whole nature of the mass media. Almost everything we see in the media is just plain different than what it is in real life. This creates a kind of unreality in our consciousness. Or at least an acceptance of the unreal.

On a simple, practical note, these digital and media-driven days it’s a good idea to work at the largest scale your scanner can accommodate. That helps make things look cool.


What about the bats in the belfry?

It turns out there weren’t bats in the belfry after all. The creatures were just a troupe of flying monkeys resting for a while. They flew off yesterday, flying away to do their witchy, flying monkey stuff someplace else. So this place will remain open for some time longer . . .

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