Let's get small

Nov 12, 2003 at 12:00 am

Perhaps Detroit artist Chido Johnson’s site-specific wall painting says it best. His incredibly shrunken figure, painted hunched near the bottom of the back wall of detroit contemporary’s second floor, brings things to scale. To Johnson’s little guy, the 4.25-inch by 5.5-inch works displayed all around him are vast murals, mesmerizing magnum opuses. But it doesn’t take a cricket-sized art lover to appreciate the intense detail and time that must have gone into the submissions to the gallery’s fourth Actual Size Biennial.

If anyone still needs evidence that the most delightful treasures come in small packages, Actual Size is proof-positive. After two exhibitions of 8.5-inch by 11-inch submissions, gallery director Phaedra Robinson returned to the invitational’s roots — challenging Detroit-area artists to complete a work that would only take up a rectangle of space equivalent to a quarter-sheet of paper.

“All of the artists really loved the challenge of it,” Robinson says. “You can see that in those who pushed the limits of it, or used it to the advantage of the piece.”

The show itself is a limit-pusher. The first Actual Size exhibit featured about 20 area artists; this one includes work from more than 250 artists.

“It’s kind of a big Detroit art community powwow,” Robinson says. “This really shows how much talent is in this small area, and diverse too.”

The exhibition mingles such established artists as Charles McGee with up-and-comers and even some students. The diversity is evident in the variety of materials used — everything from glass to aluminum to a tiny television set. Because the works are so different, at times it’s easy to forget that everything is relatively the same size.

Many artists chose to go in a scientific direction, pinning down tiny butterfly or moth specimens, even small skulls, possibly from a bird or lizard. Scott Hullinger went microscopic. His submission is a lovely haiku of his larger biological landscapes. Just one sponge-like clumpy intruder tucks itself inside his characteristic web of reaching veins. Layered over a newspaper stocks page, the snippet communicates just as much, maybe even more, than some of his bigger pieces.

Some artists came up with crafty ways to sneak outside of the box. A few submitted actual boxes that can be opened. Others would rather you didn’t open them. In one sculpture, the artist lined a metal mesh box with furry velvet. A bed of copper nails cradles a cracked eggshell in place. Miniature chains protect the egg’s insides and a layer of broken glass tops off the piece.

Joel Silvers’ “Relative Size” invites viewers to look inside a cube stacked with digital prints of a large, intricately detailed painting he’s been working on for a long time. You look at it through a magnified lens, so the closer you get, the more you see. Unless you’re practically touching the glass, the image looks pixilated, blurry. Up close, the detailed image is more what you’ll see when the painting is its “actual size.”

Another artist snuck two images into one, using hologram effects. Other works stretch out from the wall or up from the floor.

Many of these three-dimensional works create shadow effects, which extend the visual outside of the tiny rectangle. One beautiful example is a collection of cast-aluminum popsicle-like objects sticking out from the wall. Contemplating this one for too long might make your fillings ache, but the shadows are lovely.

A few artists limit themselves further than the original demand — fitting an even-teensier image (in one case, a miniature photograph of a crowded Asian market) snugly inside a thick frame.

One striking image features a painting of identical twin girls. It calls to mind Diane Arbus’ well-known photograph of seemingly perfectly-coiffed girls, holding hands like paper dolls. Like Arbus’ work, upon closer inspection of the tiny painting, the viewer notices that the girls’ dresses are torn. Their personalities speak from faint but deeply different facial expressions.

In addition to boxes and escape, some artists go postal. Postage stamps find their way into many of the pieces, along with “postcard from Detroit” imagery. One artist advertises for a “muse” in take-away flyers. Robinson actually mailed her submission to the gallery and the cancellation imprimatur — pink type and stamped ink from the U.S. Postal Service — only adds to the charm of the piece.

Riva Sayegh took the show’s title literally, with an image of bloody scissors (actual size) on a 4.25-inch by 5.5-inch magnet. She got one of the best spots in the house—on a door in the back room.

“Nothing else could go on the metal door,” Robinson says with a laugh. “We threw it up and it stuck.”

Some other standouts include Leesa Bringas’ embroidered bunny wearing a smog mask, Coley McLean’s aluminum light-switch-like piece that glows, and Susan Campbell’s subtly smudged graphite drawing. Campbell’s contribution is simple yet detailed and perfectly comfortable in the space allotment, not spilling over like many other pieces. Of all the submissions, this one most represents the poetic element of the show — saying a lot with less.

Overall, this is a fun show, playful, replete with vastly different mini-experiences. One especially fun thing is the price — the pieces range everywhere from $10-ish to $2,000-ish.

Whether you’re opening a box or flipping through a petite booklet of eye socket sketches, it’s easy to see how much the artists enjoyed the challenge. And if you squint your eyes, you might even be able to get lost inside one of these intimate murals.


Actual Size runs through Sunday, Dec. 21, at detroit contemporary, 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd. in Detroit. Call 313-898-4ART.

Melissa Giannini is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]