Art » Art Feature

Larger Than Life

The Brooks Museum thinks "Big."



A bit of conventional wisdom for what it's worth: Anyone who claims "it's not the size of the boat, it's the motion of the ocean" is, most likely, the captain of a skiff. Would the "Great Pyramid" of Giza be nearly so great if it were only the size of a shed? A whisper makes for good drama, sure, but if you really want to capture someone's attention, isn't a bullhorn better? Could Big Macs ever eclipse the Whopper by sporting only one all-beef patty?


"Size matters." This catchphrase once used to promote Godzilla's Hollywood makeover (and now owned by spammers out to supersize America's genitalia one e-mail at a time) is the fundamental assumption behind "Big," an exhibit of larger works culled from the Brooks Museum of Art's permanent collection and peppered with some largish loans.

But does size really matter? As the exhibit's wall text aptly points out, Phidias' statue of Athena -- the colossal centerpiece of the already colossal Parthenon -- was the big bang for artists who see a bigger picture. Rubes by nature, humans have always been suckers for size: Visit the Grand Canyon; climb Mt. Everest; put your money down, boys, and see the fat lady sing. In art (as in nature), size is a novelty that overwhelms, stops us dead in our tracks. And size is an essential consideration, especially if the artist's goal is "education." (Or, as some fifth columnists might suggest, "propaganda.") So, yes, size matters. But so does context.

"Large" might be a better name than "Big" for the Brooks exhibit. Or "Big on Personality." There is no statue of Athena here. There's no Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, or Chuck Close either. There's nothing that, through sheer size, makes jaws go slack with wonder. But for Brooks, a museum that seems much larger than it actually is, these pieces, which include works by pop artist Red Grooms and chameleon photographer Cindy Sherman, are fairly gigantic.

"It just happened that the downstairs galleries we usually use for touring exhibits were open," says Marina Pacini, Brooks' chief curator. "It's rare when that happens, and these are all works that don't just fit anywhere in the museum.

"Think about [Deborah] Butterfield's Horse," Pacini says, referring to a life-sized sculpture of a horse that, though covered in mud and straw, appears to be constructed from pure manure. "Sure, it's only a life-sized horse, but we're not used to seeing a life-sized horse in a gallery. The only place we see a life-sized sculpture of a horse is outside, and some general is sitting on top of it.

"Look at the Veda Reed," Pacini says of Across the Mississippi, a long, narrow triptych. "Can you imagine seeing only one of those paintings without the other two?" she asks. "You just couldn't get any sense of the piece."

"Big" is the first big example of Pacini's goal to showcase more works from the museum's permanent collection.

"We've got 7,000 objects," Pacini says, "and it's pretty standard for a museum that only 3 to 5 percent of a collection is on view at any one time."

There are many reasons that, like icebergs, the bulk of a museum's mass remains below the surface. There are conservation issues. Works on paper, for example, have to be taken down regularly. And then, of course, there are also issues of space, content, and context.

"And only so many square feet!" Pacini says, noting that museum boardrooms out of use for years were recently converted into gallery space. The ultimate goal is to get more pieces from the permanent collection, large and small, into circulation.

"'Big' was a great opportunity to do something quirkier, weirder, and more fun," Pacini says. And that is a fine summation of an exhibit that is more likely to charm than overwhelm. Dennis Oppenheim's whimsical animatronic Spinning Shark launches into action so unexpectedly that Pacini may post warnings so visitors don't faint from surprise. Marisol Escobar's Family, a modern creche constructed of plastic, glass, wood, and neon, sits opposite Laura Simmons' oversized black-and-white photograph Walking Cake, a birthday cake standing on shapely female legs. Richard Bosman's 1944 woodcut The Fall, a post-expressionist image of a man in a head-first free fall, resonates nicely with propaganda-inspired works by Barbara Kruger and Tim Rollins.

"You wouldn't normally be able to see a lot of these pieces," Pacini says. "The Elizabeth Murray piece, for example, has such an irregular canvas, it explodes off the wall. Where do you put something like that? We've got to do something to get more [art] out there for our visitors; to help them learn more about contemporary art history."

"Big" may not make any large statements about size and art, but it does suggest that some of the most interesting works in the Brooks collection spend too much time in the vaults. The bigger news is that Pacini hopes to change all of that.

Through the end of July

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