First, a note on scale: In archival photos of Egyptian ruins and monuments, there’s generally a little dude and/or camel in there functioning as a yardstick. Like these little dudes and/or camels, my partner appears in a lot of my photos of art for scale. Recently he came in handy at Katharina Grosse’s show at De Pont, and again in the Louvre’s hall of large-format paintings (David’s The Coronation of Napoleon, for example, measures twenty by thirty-two feet). But never has a painting so dwarfed my agreeable model as in Rotterdam’s Submarine Wharf.
It’s no secret that ArtSlant Amsterdam correspondents have a bit of a thing for the Submarine Wharf’s annual summer exhibition. The art is supersized, sensational, and generally quite good. The first three installations of this projected five-year Port of Rotterdam collaboration with Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen were ambitious environments measured to the space – AVL mapped out their dystopian visions in human scale; Elmgreen and Dragset erected a building within the building, not to mention a functioning Ferris wheel; Sarkis provided bicycles to ride. So what sort of outsized operation occupies the space this summer? Paintings it turns out. Not large, extra-, or even extra-extra-large paintings. Triple Ex El, my friends.
Jim Shaw, installation view of XXXL Painting at Submarine Wharf, Rotterdam, 2013; Courtesy of the artist / Photo: Andrea Alessi.
But size is not everything. Lucky for us, there’s more to XXXL Painting than the artworks’ novel proportions. Three artists, occupying roughly one room (of aircraft hangar dimensions) each, match the space’s challenges while representing several strains in contemporary painting. Jim Shaw uses figuration to create worlds and tell stories; Chris Martin revisits a more spiritual side of art making; and Klaas Kloosterboer questions what a painting is and how it should behave.
Jim Shaw’s work represents a fantastical direction in painting that sheds light on society’s nonsense and incongruities. Using exaggeration and invention, his creations parody the real world: political cartoon writ XXXL. We are the unwitting actors in his paintings, which incorporate old theatre backdrops and are assembled like stage sets. They are laugh-out-loud funny and feature such diverse symbols as gnomes, octopi, crystals, vacuum cleaners, and mustaches. Reality is stranger than fiction, but sometimes we need fiction to help us see how weird reality is.
Chris Martin’s paintings constitute some of the largest works on display. They are like spiritual objects, talismans that promise Painting’s aura lives on. From a distance they appear abstract, planes of glitter and graphic shapes; a closer encounter reveals pasted images and objects, inscribed texts, names. The telescopic action of the body moving in to experience a detail fosters a unique form of intimacy when confronting such a giant.
Klaas Kloosterboer, installation view of XXXL Painting at Submarine Wharf, Rotterdam, 2013; Courtesy of the artist / Photo: Andrea Alessi
My favorite display was Klaas Kloosterboer’s elegant installation comprising two concentric tiers of paintings circumscribing the space. The inner rectangle of paintings moves slowly around the room along a motorized rail rigged to the ceiling. The suspended works are graphic panels, sometimes of solitary color, other times with painted dots, or punched holes. A few paintings are crumpled or folded to form outsized outfits, theatrical objects and costumes the artist used in performances. As the panels and objects revolve around the room, they become actors moving across an ever-changing backdrop. Empty spaces fascinate, for a hole in a green canvas changes from red to orange to white as it slides past backdrops of various colors. A pair of red checked trousers becomes foregrounded by yellow and blue panels, creating a primary palette. The spinning tableau is full of these little moments when colors and shapes come together in brief harmony or collision, then silently move on.
But why XXXL? Do the works need to be this large? (Other than to fill the space, which is no small feat.) There is, predictably, more than a little explosion of male ego here (which, not to put too fine of a point on it, there has been in all Submarine Wharf installations thus far), but otherwise what is the function of size?
Bigger isn’t better, just different. The works can be confrontational and immersive – you can literally step into a couple of them. There is no single vantage point, no correct encounter, but passivity isn’t really in your best interest. You can experience moments, a fragment, a whole: stand back and catch the “big picture”, as it were, or move in to savor small details. Painting is a part of the reality it both reflects and explores, and when presented at this scale, it’s hard to ignore.
[Image on top: Chris Martin, installation view (with model) of Mushroom Hunter, 2013; Courtesy of the artist / Photo: Andrea Alessi.]