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Small art featured in Brett Baker’s online show of small works: Blades, 6 x 7 inches, egg tempera on calfskin parchment stretched on panel, by Altoon Sultan. (This painting hangs in my house and pleases me deeply every day.)

Artist Lori Ellison posted the following essay on Facebook in response to notice of Brett Baker’s curation of small works, Focused Field, on the Curating Contemporary site. Written in 2010, Ellison captures the unique power of small work with such flair. I responded immediately since it also taps into many concepts I have been exploring here on Slow Muse over the last six years. (Links to a few posts on this topic are included at the bottom.)

In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.

If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale—in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artist need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.

To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long long apprenticeship.

Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard—I can just hear the screeching.

If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind – we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone – I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.

Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic—that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet—not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room.

A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.

That, that is what I am looking for.

A list of liked-minded posts about humility and smaller format art post previously on Slow Muse:

Humility, Nature’s Way

Honing in on Johns

The Innocence of Trees

Doubting and Other Chance Encounters


Infinite Riches in a Little Room