“Magnitude Seven” is neither the oldest nor the smallest show of small things in town, a distinction that probably goes to the Art Academy’s “Minumental” show every fall, which has run for over thirty years, and requires that each work be no larger than two inches in any direction. Jason Franz, Founding Executive Director and Chief Curator of Manifest Gallery, has written that “I would not really categorize Magnitude Seven a ‘miniature’ [show] because I think of miniatures being much smaller than seven inches.” “Magnitude Seven” is one of eight shows that Manifest presents every year (along with three biennial exhibitions). Its origins, as Franz describes them, are humble and hardly theoretical in nature: during Manifest’s first season fifteen years ago, Franz wanted to reach out beyond the regional, and felt “that smaller work would be much easier for artists to commit to ship to us in Cincinnati” than larger works.
That said, scale is one of visual art’s many ongoing issues, one that has changed over the centuries and genres of our complex traditions, with medieval miniatures at one end, perhaps, and abstract expressionist or color field canvases at another. Smallness ups the ante in its own way. (Are there many shows anywhere that enforce a minimum size?) Of course, there are monumental works of art that start their lives as miniature maquettes. Some of the most powerful works in this year’s Magnitude Seven are small objects that you can imagine as leading to much larger versions. Pirjo Berg is a painter who works both in conventionally sized works and much smaller formats. Her “Skeletal Mindscape” (2019) suggests a terrain in cross-section sliced to reveal its sedimentary layers. Berg appears to use a scraper of some sort to both reveal and obliterate an under-painting, creating a sense of both flatness and depth. The work served as a reminder that virtually all traditional landscapes are maquettes of a sort—miniaturizations of the world in ways, say, that most portraits and still lifes are not. Atanas Mihaltchev’s black paper “Floral Form” (2017) could be a design for a sculpture of almost any size; it’s easy to imagine it as part of an architectural mock-up in front of a museum (or corporate headquarters) surrounded by tiny figures. It is generous, and perhaps touching, that it is in fact merely made of fine Fabriano paper, rather than being intended for corten steel, and is not in itself much larger than a fairly substantial blossom in a well-tended garden. Katlyn Brumfield’s “Still Birth/Egg of a Passenger Pigeon” (2019) is a graphite powder drawing of a slightly speckled oval. It is, as the title tells us, a portrait of an egg that will never hatch, a connection to an impossible rebirth of a species rendered extinct by mankind. It is part of what the artist calls “a meditation on what it means to live in the Anthropocene.” Like most pictures of an egg, it is an image of a secret, a transformative process hidden from our eyes. The way this specimen egg floats in its black background makes it also seem a little like some great celestial object—a dead moon or a murderous death star, reminding us that man’s relationship to the natural world transpires at both micro and macro levels.
Some of the works seemed to unabashedly celebrate smallness. Brandice Guerra has a pen, ink, and pastel of “The Early Bird” (2015) done in the fine and careful lines and cross-hatchings we might associate with an old master drawing. It is also a reminder that one way smaller works operate on us is to require us to lean in: pulled in by their detail and the ability to make small things come to life, we respond to them like a connoisseur in a cartoon by Daumier, getting as close as we can in order to fully appreciate every distinctive, well-executed detail. Katherine Colborn’s “Origin Landscape IV” (2015) gets us close to the rumpled sheets and blankets on a bed arranged like the draperies on an ancient Roman statue. It is done in sepia, perhaps intended to be reminiscent of an old photograph. The picture suggests how like a contour map bedclothes can become, a thought that occurred to me many times when waking up as a child: the ridges of the fabric ran down to an imagined coastline filled with adventure and possibilities. But we’re not allowed to miss the key to the scale: reading pillows are stacked up against an unseen headboard and there is an old-fashioned lamp on a small table just behind. In her artist’s statement, Colborn comments that “my grandparent’s sheets are inviting and familiar yet deeply private and inaccessible. Their bed recalls my own origin….” Her title, “Origin Landscape,” is particularly apt in suggesting both the expansiveness of a landscape and the intimacy attached to a depiction of an empty, used bed that has been in the family.
Smaller works tend to invite precision—dramatic, expressive brushstrokes are generally going to look better on larger canvases—and may well invite us to look in on a crowded world. As things get closer and closer to each other, we may tend to see more elements of the surreal, where juxtaposition is everything. Matthew Brennan’s “Stretching Over” (2017), for example, looks like a postmodern museum storeroom. There are body parts—most of what could be a heroic Greek torso, a foot elsewhere in a jumble of statuary. Bone, skin, and machine sit next to each other and, in part, merge, allowing us to be haunted by the power of the parts. In “Next to Myself” (2019), Liliana Guzman photographs a double exposure of herself as her twin. One of her selves is awake and one is asleep; one is light and one is dark; one is dreamily disengaged and one stares directly at us. The pair of figures raises interesting and traditional issues about our component selves. Is one a dream? Is one a guardian? But why is the dream self or the protective, possibly maternal, self so involved with the audience?
The opening wall tag refers to the exhibit as an anthology of “hand-sized works,” but only a few seemed to actually suggest the hand as the appropriate measurement of scale, and to further suggest ways that smaller works invoke the body in different ways than larger works might. In Carole Kunstadt’s “Pressing On: Homage to Hannah More, No. 87” (2018), an antique “sad” iron (a solid piece of metal ready to heated) is mounted with a partial page of text from the Enlightenment playwright and essayist Hannah More’s writings, then covered with lace, scorching them. Kunstadt has fashioned well over a hundred sad irons, with materials on their flat surfaces ranging from string and buttons to fur and tacks, calling to mind the classic surrealist gesture of Man Ray’s “The Gift.” Irons, of course, nearly always raise questions about “women’s work,” and Kunstadt’s is one of the relatively few works to pick up on the potential politicization of the surreal.
Some of the works take on surrealist issues in newer forms. Lawrence Tarpey sees in the challenge of working in small scale an opportunity to express a love of drawing, of crowded detail possibly for its own sake. “The Excavators” (2017) shows a jumble of figures gathered at the mouth of a cave—or perhaps emerging from a puff of smoke. They are, in other words, either approaching our culture’s classic locus for the parable of truth or popping out of a world of illusion. “The Excavators” is as busy as Guzman’s photograph was chaste, and draws us in towards it as Guerra’s “Early Bird” did, only to find a whole different ideal of what drawing could look like. There is a delicious amount of activity going on in a small space. It is truly hard to plumb his oil and graphite beings, who do not seem to be interacting with each other despite their close proximity, for a narrative line. There are marks that are like letters but end up as unreadable hieroglyphs. It is a work where the parts make more sense than the whole. The various cartoon-like figures have not yet quite gotten around to decide on a common purpose; the work as a whole is an interesting reminder that virtually all panels of every printed cartoon or comic would have been well within the show’s 7×7 parameters.
In another one of the exhibit’s few but particularly well-chosen sculptural objects, Mary Clara Hutchison’s “Tourniquet” (2018) has taken two different dollhouse pieces of furniture—a delicate rocking chair and a more sturdy desk or dining room chair– bisected each and then bound them together with thread and pins. Her purpose seems to be to create something fresh, absurd, and vaguely monstrous from the juxtaposition of two ordinary things. As she writes in her Artist’s Statement, “I use delicate materials traditionally used to create something, and employ them to render an object useless instead.” The piece’s components are traditionally sedate, but the title suggests the drama of a medical emergency. The sewing thread hardly makes for reliable tourniquet material but suggests instead the fragility of the surgery performed by the artist, or perhaps by the culture she imagines has required this miniature and intimate act of bondage. The pins bring associations with the world of sewing and women’s domestic work but also the fixing of small scientific specimens for display and classification. The choice of dollhouse furniture naturally raises implicit questions about gender constructions. It’s perfectly possible that the delicacy of the rocking chair half and the sturdiness of the desk chair are likely to raise associations of ways that female and male are bound, in an imperfect emergency operation, to make a whole. The ultimate viability of that new whole is another question.
There is a modest amount of photography in the show, which was a bit of a surprise since virtually any photographic image could have been printed out in a size that would have met the show’s restrictions. Susan Bryant’s “Cumberland Island” (2018) is technically a historical palimpsest: she takes a digital image, turns it into a collodian tintype and then produces a digital print. It is, in the end, about the size of a tintype, the fabulously popular form of photography that took the place of the more laborious and evanescent daguerreotype, and which must have been produced in the millions throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not unlike Kunstadt’s miniature “sad” iron, Bryant’s piece asks us to imagine the hand that might have held an object so perfectly designed to be owned and treasured, held and admired, both privately and publically. “Cumberland Island” is also layered aesthetically. Its depiction of a white sandy path trailing off into the far distance beneath an arch of trees is both typically “picturesque”—a formulaic landscape type that had immense appeal throughout the 19th century—but also brings out a more modern sense of dreaminess, one only partly languorous and lovely. Bryant’s photograph explores in part how we respond today to the sorts of objects and aesthetic ideals a 19th century would have seen. The sandy path, carefully carved out of a landscape filled with live oaks, partly evokes a 19th century sense of a loveliness that stretches on and on. But it also has, to the modern eye, a sense of an interminable walk far from home. Is it safe? Its dreaminess implies leisure and possibly even privilege and ownership, but in the form of the path that seems to stretch on forever and ever, it also suggests the dream from which you cannot awaken. It is an image that plays smartly with both its own size—its status as a hand-held—and the scale of what it depicts.
Josh Spector’s “Untitled” (2019) locates us outdoors on a chilly and wet city street somewhere, looking in through a window where books and folders of papers are stacked. Under a warm indoor light, the stacked books look a little like a mock up of a modern vertical city—playing with scale a little like an urban version of the ridges of blankets in Katherine Colborn’s “Origin Landscape IV”—where the horizontal shelves of papers play off against the slender vertical books like a classic Bauhaus design. Where the wet and cool outdoor world meets the warmer and dryer inside world, the window has fogged up, and the photograph focuses, both literally and thematically, on the window as if it were a magical canvas. On the surface of the window, we see marks that call to mind a minimal abstract expressionist painting, but then it is layered against the books, which look like a perfectly traditional still life. Shadowed indistinctly on the surface of the window we see the distant reflection of the city itself, with high rises, industrial buildings, streetlights (it seems to be dusk), and traffic lights. Spector’s photograph condenses a lot of different sorts of scale in a small space.
Josh Winegar starts with found photographs of an impromptu and informal nature. There is no indication whether he has been rifling through the family boxes of snapshots, or has been a careful client at flea markets and yard sales; in other words, we have no way to know the extent of his personal investment in the initial images, if any. He then folds them over on themselves, as he explains in his Artist’s Statement, “to partially erase the figures,” the nominal former center of interest” for what he calls the thousands of “casual documents” that clutter up people’s albums and shoeboxes. The result is both a memorial of a lost image, and a new, radically abbreviated image. All that remains of the original photograph is the suggestion of a context along with fragments of its original center, subject, and function. His hope, he argues, is to “emphasize the place photography resides between document/fantasy, reality/fiction, clarity/ambiguity.” It’s a lot to shoot for, but I think he has been terrifically successful.
It is a question of what is missing and what is left. The photograph no longer has any pretense at being able to document something about its subject’s life. Winegar has taken away the personalities of the people who used to reside at the literal center of the photograph, along with their expressions, and possibly even their agency, though his work opens up the question of the extent to which the photographed subject can ever be said to have retained agency. What’s left? With most of the personal elements removed from a snapshot, we still have a great deal of the public presence of other people in the world—they still occupy space, even if they are no longer visible in it. I was surprised at the extent to which removing the individual left us with something more theatrical about them, something interestingly gestural, something more statuesque and possible even sculptural.
In one of his images, an appropriately uniformed biker had been racing along the side of a highway. Now all we see are his gloved two gloved hands and parts of his upper arms. His bike leaves no trace of where it’s been, and he casts no shadow to either side. He could be a ghost. There is a Zen-like quality to what is left: what is the look of two hands biking? One of my favorite works in the whole show is of a child suspended above the deep blue waters of a lake somewhere. It looks like she is falling into the lake from the sky. There is something marvelously timeless about the possibility of a child suspended over the rippling surface of a lake, with time frozen by the excision of what is really going on far more effectively and strangely than it would be in the original snapshot. The picture has been folded so as to suggest, strangely, that she is carrying a head in her hands. Her body is aimed directly at a spot in the water where there has already been a splash; it looks as much like an reversed image from a movie showing a child jumping out of the water rather than of one falling into it.
The great likelihood is that the part obscured by the folding would have shown an adult, perhaps a father, in the process of lifting his daughter up out of the water. It is for me, I confess, almost sad to have solved the riddle; taking out the pedestal of the father standing in the water removed gravity as well as time, as well as making it impossible to know how deep the water actually is, and consequently the degree of underlying danger implied by the image. Winegar has not captured the dimensions of the experience; he has obscured it, creating instead a mysterious space. I think it is likely part of his argument that the space he has created was always latent, even in the most ordinary and prosaic of images. Removal of the image’s core has opened up a new space rather than collapsed it. It is a perfect example of how the (relatively) miniature image takes up little space but creates a great deal of it.