For every material challenge contemporary society overcomes, two psychic ones take its place. Often the difficulties are not so much surmounted as redirected: your steak dinner becomes my rainforest deforestation issue, my big score in real estate becomes the gentrification that's ruining the charm of your neighborhood, and so on. While the hegemonic gods of prehistoric life have given way to the all-powerful networks that dominate our own, the agents of retribution—discord, blight and disaster—remain the same. Meanwhile, we struggle to negotiate a sea of forces much larger than us.
We are food for the beasts in the sky, wrote Jean Giono in his 1935 novel The Joy of Man's Desiring. Perhaps large-scale art helps us to face those beasts with greater courage, and to navigate those seas with more confidence.
For Do-Ho Suh '94 PT, scale is a way of exploring issues of displacement and identity. The son of a well-known Korean painter, he grew up in Seoul and served time in the Korean military, an experience that influences his choice of imagery and his concerns about identity, conformity and anonymity. Having already earned degrees in Asian painting in Korea, he came to the US to study Western art in the early 1990s, first at RISD and later at Yale.
Back-and-forth travels between Seoul and New York have forced Suh to ponder issues of personal and transitional spaces as well as the concept of home.
When I first came to the States, I really felt that I was just dropped from the sky, he told a Village Voice reporter.
It's like you're suddenly living in someone else's body, so you don't know how long your arms are. You have to find a new relationship to your surroundings.
Suh soon shifted from two-dimensional to three-dimensional work, making a full-scale replica of his New York apartment out of transparent nylon, detailed down to the hand-sewn radiators, door hinges and overhead pipes. A 1999 work entitled Seoul Home/New York Home/Baltimore Home/London Home/Seattle Home expands on this concept. A life-size replica of his family's Korean house sewn together from sheets of jade-colored silk, it is arranged to hang over the viewer like a green architectural ghost, its walls swaying with every tiny breeze. Each time it is displayed in a new city the title is lengthened, appending a travelogue to it that gives the work geographic context while emphasizing its nomadic nature. Despite its size when installed, Seoul Home can be bundled up into two suitcases, which makes him think of it as his
transportable site-specific piece.
Suh has also used scale to great effect in Who Am We?, a wallpaper shown in last year's RISD Museum show On the Wall. Its title derives from the lack of distinction between singular and plural words for
I in Korean, and the piece itself appears to be a dense pattern of tiny polkadots until one notices that the dots are actually thousands of miniscule faces taken from Suh's high school yearbooks.
Amsterdam-based sculptor Mari Shields '70 PT works with site-specific installations as well, but in contrast to Suh's work, hers is both solid and massive, and at the same time more abstract.
I work with entire trees at their natural size, she says,
not to be impressive but to use what nature provides me. I want to feel—and share with others—that delicious sense of being in harmony with something far larger than any of us. Depending on the serendipitous placement of branches, some of the trees Shields sculpts seem to creep along the earth like mammoth, terrestrial octopi; others indicate that they are growing back down into the soil and will remain there for centuries, standing like cathedrals.
I work with large trees because I can say what I want about our relationship to nature at this scale, the artist explains.
Generally, I think the bigger the better, but it is not about scale as such. Instead, Shields strives for the same relationship with art that she has with nature.
I don't like being 'outside' art, she says.
I don't want to impose myself on the work, I want to be a part of it, just as I am with nature. With large works we can enter, feel less imposing, are better able to forget ourselves and let the work take effect.
Shigrinne, a 21-foot sculpture originally installed on the Pier Walk in Chicago and now at Wandell Park in Urbana, IL, appears as a flat-topped quadruped clutching a curved spike as it walks by a tree stump that has been turned into a wedge. Shields balances the act of crafting wood into a shape of her choosing with leaving the natural forms intact; the result is an evocative midpoint between the two that makes her work seem both honed and casual. The size is domineering, but the pieces themselves are made to be accessible so that as humans
we can feel and experience something we don't when we are 'in charge.'
global scope Influenced by the large-scale paintings of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, Julie Mehretu MFA '97 PT/PR is attuned to the way size affects participation with her paintings. Her vortical images, on canvases ranging from six to 18 feet across, explode with architectural and biological geometries that radiate out at the viewer.
Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970 and relocated with her family to East Lansing, MI at the age of seven. Her art education and subsequent career have taken her to Kalamazoo, Dakar, Providence, Houston, Minneapolis and finally to Harlem, where she now lives and works. The entire trail adds up to a global path of zigzags—geographic and cultural—not unlike the lines that dart around expansive areas of paintings such as Empirical Construction: Istanbul, a 10 x 15-foot tour de force that was one of two of her works chosen for the 2004 Whitney Biennial. In fact, Mehretu creates visual metaphors for life-altering change and displacement, superimposing motifs derived from interpretations of city grids, modernist building designs, contemporary graphics, cartography, meteorology, graffiti and cartooning. Together, they look as if the tornado-like energy of Pollock had been unleashed in the geometric world of Al Held.
Mehretu uses issues of scale to her advantage, filling grand expanses of canvas with minutely detailed marks.
The big question for me is how much of an impact an individual can have in a large community, she explained in an interview accompanying Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues on the Diaspora, a show held last year at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.
That's really the content of my narratives. They come together to create this overall picture that you see from the distance, especially in my large canvases. As you come close to it, the big picture completely shatters and there are these numerous small narratives happening. They become the focal point, and again, as you back up, you lose the specificity. Mehretu describes each painting as a
cosmos made of
characters with individual stories and agency. A melange of backgrounds herself, she is able to connect with disparate elements of identity in the urban and global landscape, and through large-scale paintings, chart their vertiginous, colliding progress using similes of abstract shapes.
Monumental scale in art has probably been associated with monumental human ambitions since the creation of the first enormous earthworks in prehistoric times. True, large works like those of the alumni represented here make us conscious of our puny bodies, which are dwarfed by the cosmos and almost everything in it. But since they are made by human beings, they remind us of the great achievements possible when individual energies are focused and applied. They can help us to stand up to the all-powerful forces that surround us, and perhaps unleash some powers of our own.
Franklin Einspruch '90 IL is an artist and writer living in Miami. His work can be viewed at www.einspruch.com. He also writes an online art column at www.artblog.net. To see additional work by the artists discussed in this article, go to www.risd.edu/publications_views.cfm.